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What is “Organic” Soil?

After reading Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, I have a strong fear of bags of soil. And fertilizer. Fateful Harvest was written by Duff Wilson, who was, at that time, an investigative journalist for the Seattle Times. His book is an expansion on an article he wrote for the Seattle Times in 1997. The investigative article was published in two parts by the Seattle Times on July 2, 1997 and July 3, 1997, titled Fear in the Fields. Duff Wilson was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the article.

In his book, Wilson writes about a small town mayor in Quincy, Washington, who fights the practice of recycling industrial byproducts, such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead, by labeling it as fertilizer. Companies, instead of paying for hazardous waste disposal, can earn a profit by selling their toxic waste to farmers, to be used as fertilizer on agricultural fields. This is a frightening EPA loophole, designed to promote recycling.

MiracleGro "Organic"

Interestingly, Fateful Harvest is not a book that is referred to often in the food-centric social media that I follow. I’m not sure why. As far as I know, there is still no law requiring the labeling of fertilizers as being derived from toxic waste or labeling of contents in bags of soil, compost, or fertilizer.

Based on this knowledge, when it came to finding soil for my garden this year, I carefully read packages and did a little research. Two popular brands, Scott and MiracleGro, had “organic” soil, but I think it’s just a product name. I don’t think there is any regulation on using the term “organic” on soil or soil amendments.

Cedar Grove Organic Compost

Every time I went to Home Depot this spring I saw these bags of “organic” soil flying off the shelf; I couldn’t help but think that perhaps people are getting duped.

Eventually I did find bags of compost with a “certified for organic agriculture” seal on it from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. (The other “organic” soils had no certifications or seals.)  The compost came from Cedar Grove composting, a local company that composts yard trimmings, wood, and food scraps from the Puget Sound region. Composting this waste (which is non-toxic!!) diverts it from the landfill and turns it into something useful, great for chemical-free gardening and landscaping, as nature intended.

Unfortunately, Cedar Grove does not sell top soil by the bag, only the compost. They sell top soil by the yard from their processing plant. Bags would be a bit more appropriate for a condo-dwelling urban gardener. For this year, I used the Cedar Grove compost to amend the potting soil I already had. My tomatoes are happy and thriving, despite the sun making its first appearance of the year in Seattle just this week.

So what is “organic” soil? I still don’t know. But I’m playing it safe by looking for products with a third party certification. Let me know if you have more insight . . . .


Organic Grows Bigger Potatoes

A Washington State University study has revealed that organic farming leads to larger potatoes than conventional farming.

An article in Seattle Times revealed that the secret to larger potatoes is a balanced mix of insects and fungi. Biodiversity in the field does a superior job of keeping pests at bay than chemical pesticides.

Hmm.  Is it possible that nature works better than “science” from agricultural companies?

According to the article, consumer demand for potatoes laced with fewer or no pesticides has increased. Washington is the second largest producer of potatoes in the US, after Idaho, and yet less than 1% of potatoes in Washington are organically grown.

The USDA Pesticide Data Program in 2008 found 37 different pesticide residues on potatoes. For 2010, potatoes ranked number eleven on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” for the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables.

What should you do? Until the industry catches on, keep buying certified organic potatoes. It’s better for you and better for the environment. Or grow your own; harvesting potatoes is like digging for buried treasure. Very fun!


Thundering Hooves

Everything I have written in the previous five or six posts is quite depressing.  The meat industry and its filthy habits chased me away nearly eight years ago and I’ve never looked back.  While I’ve mostly viewed my transition to a vegetarian diet as “no big deal,” others drop their jaw, ask me what I eat, and question how I get enough protein.

It’s hard not to laugh at them.  But that’s another topic.

Luckily my meat-eating boyfriend, Dave, was never one to question my choice, and he’s never complained about tofu, veggie burgers, veggie chili, or the no-meat-nachos we share at happy hour.  But, ignorance was bliss.  When he had his own place, if he chose to eat cheap meat, “CAFO meat” as I like to call it, when I wasn’t around, I could pretend like it didn’t happen. However, living together brought on new challenges; I was not enthralled with the idea of CAFO meat in my refrigerator.

We are able to purchase small (and expensive) packages of frozen organic ground beef and organic chicken sausages at our grocery store. I was happy with that (easy for me to say, I wasn’t eating them), but Dave apparently wanted more. When he brought CAFO bacon home from the store, that was my breaking point.  I suggested we find a source of sustainably-raised meat.  We had this discussion every three or four days, basically every time two more pieces of CAFO bacon sizzled on the stovetop.

It took a conversation with our friends, Vic and Jane, to finally spur us into action.  Interestingly, we ran into them at a party where there were two distinct crowds.  There was the “sprouted wheat bun for your veggie burger paired with a microbrew” crowd and the “let’s make a beef cake instead of a birthday cake and wash it down with a PBR” crowd.  Long story short, we mentioned to our like-minded friends that we were looking for a local and reputable source of sustainably-raised meat.  Vic and Jane immediately listed a number of shops in Seattle, but they also gave a great review of Thundering Hooves in Walla Walla, Washington.

Clandestine Meeting

Ordering from Thundering Hooves was much more entertaining than a trip to the grocery store.  For those of you not familiar with Washington, Walla Walla is located in eastern Washington and is about a four hour drive from Seattle in western Washington.  Thundering Hooves is able to sell to western Washington customers by coordinating drop off points for meat purchases.  Joel Salatin, at a recent lecture I attended in Seattle, playfully referred to these types of arrangements as “clandestine meetings.”

Dave's Order

On the designated clandestine meeting day (which occur every two or four weeks), the Thundering Hooves refrigerated truck is loaded with everyone’s Internet orders, organized into labeled paper bags; the meat is vacuum-packed and frozen.  The truck heads to Seattle and makes its rounds to each neighborhood.  It parks in front of a volunteer’s house at the appointed time.  Everyone brings their checkbook, hovers behind the truck and awkwardly says “hello” to each other as they wait.  The volunteer’s neighbors, quite conspicuously, peer from between their curtains to the strange street gathering.

We left the pick up feeling content.  I felt good about purchasing meat from a responsible, sustainably-focused family farm and Dave was excited to have meat in the house that wouldn’t cause his girlfriend to give him dirty looks.  It’s win-win.

Although, perhaps it’s actually win-win-win . . . .  My cat’s bond with Dave definitely strengthened after the Thundering Hooves delivery.  Dave, being thoughtful and generous, included in his order  “ground beef for pets.”  I’m sure my cat is the only cat on the block eating grass-finished, sustainably-raised beef; my cat now eats better than most Americans.


Factory Farming Externalities

A negative externality is a cost “not transmitted through prices, incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost . . . . ”1 In the case of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the party who did not agree to the costs includes the environment and the ecology. The damage caused by these operations (past, present, and future) will impact the environment and ecology for many years.

In the United States more than 99% of farmed animals come from factory farming.2 This, of course, means that less than 1% of farmed animals come from the idyllic pastoral scene with a quaint red barn and a tractor. The food industry doesn’t want you to know this, but those days are long gone.

What CAFOs are really good at doing, besides producing meat on the cheap, is producing waste. CAFOs produce about 100 times more waste than the amount of human waste processed in all US wastewater treatment plants.3 Requirements for treatment of human waste before entering waterways is stringent. This is not the case with livestock waste.

Livestock waste is more than just manure. It contains pathogens (many with antibiotic resistance) such as Helicobacter pylori, E.Coli O157:H7, salmonella, and listeria, heavy metals, hormones, and high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. Contamination of waterways with livestock waste has numerous implication on human health and ecology.

Livestock waste is placed and stored in waste lagoons, which are deep troughs lined with clay. This type of storage does not adequately treat the waste; anaerobic lagoons are not effective at eliminating pathogens, biochemical oxygen demand, or heavy metals.4 Lagoons, an impressive euphemism, essentially serve as temporary storage ponds for animal waste. Not surprisingly, lagoons reach capacity and the waste has to go somewhere. Normally the waste is sprayed on nearby cropland. Depending on the soil, the waste can either infiltrate into the soil or it will runoff. This runoff contaminates waterways wreaking havoc on marine life and threatening human health. When the waste does infiltrate into the soil, it can cause phosphorus oversaturation and contaminate soils with heavy metals, damaging the cropland for years to come.

And that is when everything goes as planned. Lagoons fail. Lagoons overflow. Lagoons seep.


1 (20 June 2010)
2 (20 June 2010)
3 (20 June 2010)
4 Kirby, Dennis (2010) Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment

It’s a Small Planet

Today, more and more land in the world is devoted to growing grain to feed livestock, instead of growing food directly for people. Since meat is a poor converter of energy, dedicating land to growing food for livestock is an extremely inefficient use of land.

This has dire implications for the world’s poor and hungry. For example, rural communities in India who were self-sustainable on their own land, by growing a variety of crops for local consumption, are now raising monocrops of corn and soybeans, usually genetically-modified, to be sent to Europe for feeding livestock in animal feeding operations.

There are many examples of this: According to Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, “two thirds of the agriculturally productive land in Central America is devoted to livestock production, yet the poor majority cannot afford the meat, which is eaten by the well-to-do or exported.” In Costa Rica, beef production quadrupled between 1960 and 1980. Today much of the original tropical rain forest land has been sacrificed to beef production, however most of Costa Rican beef is exported to the United States.1 In Guatemala, the majority of children under the age of five are undernourished or otherwise malnourished, however most of Guatemala’s agricultural land is devoted to livestock feed and livestock production. Guatemala exports 40 million pounds of meat every year to the United States.2

Four percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, however 23% of the world’s beef is eaten in the United States.3 The Worldwatch Institute summarizes this well, “continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grains to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.”


1 Robbins, John (2001). The Food Revolution, How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And The World.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

“Because I’ve Read Too Much”

In the past, when I’ve been asked why I don’t eat meat, my usual answer has been, “because I’ve read too much.” I’m not sure why I answered this way, perhaps it’s due to my aversion towards debate or preference for conflict avoidance. But now, I’d like to set the record straight. I opted out of meat eating because I do not approve of factory farming and the resultant negative effects on the health of people, the health and well being of animals, the environment, and the effects our practices and policies have on developing countries.

Photo Provided by Farm Sanctuary

Factory farming operations produce most of our meat in the United States. The purpose of these operations is to maximize profits by producing cheap and abundant meat. The industry applies the concepts of assembly lines and economies of scale to livestock and poultry. This may work with cars, but this does not work with living things.

The living conditions of animals in factory farms adversely affect both the health of the animals and the health of humans and the safety of our food supply. Animals are crammed into barns, which are more like warehouses, and do not have adequate room to move or exhibit natural behaviors. Chickens have less than half a square foot of space and turkeys less than three square feet. Conditions for pigs are equally cramped and harsh. Many of these animals spend their entire stressful lives indoors, never seeing sunlight.

The dense conditions of factory farming lead to the proliferation of infections such as E. coli O157:H7, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and others. In attempt to curb infections, animals are given regular doses of antibiotics. Routinely administered antibiotics are a short-sighted solution that addresses the symptoms instead of the problem. The need for routine antibiotics is a direct result of the living conditions of the animals. The industry also uses antibiotics to speed growth of livestock and poultry. This abuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance (superbugs such as MRSA), which is a serious concern in the medical community.

The feed given to these animals, especially cattle, is not natural. Cattle feed at concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs or “feedlots”) consists largely of corn. Corn is desirable by the industry because it is cheap, cheaper than it costs to produce thanks to government subsidies, and it fattens cattle quickly. However, cattle, which are ruminants, are designed by nature to consume grass, not grains. Grain consumption leads to sickness and pain in cattle and cultivates a high acid environment in the intestines of cows, perfect for E.coli O157:H7, the familiar deadly intestinal bacteria often heard about in the news. Grain fed cattle is not only unhealthy for the cattle, but it is also unhealthy for humans. Compared to 100% grass-fed cattle, beef from industry cattle have much higher amounts of total fat and saturated fat and lower amounts of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.1

If this isn’t bad enough, cattle feed is commonly supplemented with chicken manure, expired pet food, and restaurant leftovers.2,3 Apparently the industry experts have not figured out that cattle are herbivores, not cannibalistic carnivorous garbage disposers. Although the practice of feeding cattle to cattle was banned by the FDA in 1997 to prevent spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow” disease), these supplemental feeds circumvent these safeguards. Due to the way chicken manure is collected, it likely is mixed with chicken feed (the FDA allows cattle remnants in chicken feed – also bizarre), and pet food and restaurant leftovers likely contain cattle remnants. These remnants could contain prions, the infectious agent of BSE, which are mutant proteins that cannot be destroyed by heat, irradiation, sterilization or chemical disinfectants.4

Additionally, many industry cattle are injected with growth hormones. It is suspected that hormone residues in meat may be harmful to humans, by disrupting human hormone balance – causing developmental and reproductive problems and possibly leading to the development of certain cancers.5

The next post will discuss the humanitarian implications of excessive meat consumption and how concentrated meat production has affected people living in developing countries.



Opting Out

After reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, I quickly opted out. At that time, I lived in a small community where the only place to shop for food was Wal-Mart and the commissary; finding beef from a known reputable source wasn’t feasible for me. I stopped eating ground beef first (the thought of hundreds of cows being represented in one burger was too much for me to handle), and then steak. My last steak was at an Outback Steakhouse in Alexandria, Louisiana, in December 2002. All I could think about while I ate it was CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), slaughterhouses, and mad cow disease; at that point, I knew it was my last steak.

Interestingly, the film Food, Inc. opens with Eric Schlosser ordering a hamburger and fries, and then biting into said hamburger. The scene was almost too much for me to bear. Here is Eric Schlosser, the man whose investigation and whose words changed my life, eating a hamburger in front of me. Hmm. He said a hamburger and fries, to this day, was his favorite meal.

Three food revolutionaries who I completely respect and admire, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Joel Salatin, have all questioned, in their writing or speeches, the necessity or validity of a vegetarian diet. My response to these sometimes hostile statements is that I didn’t stop eating meat because I think it’s immoral to kill or eat animals (although, Ari Solomon provides a different view or two), but instead I view it as voting three times a day. I’m voting against products from an unsafe, ecologically devastating, and unethical system. By not eating meat, I am, in a very small way, telling the ConAgras, Cargills, Tysons, and Smithfields to shove it. Everyday. I don’t think Pollan, Kingsolver, or Salatin can argue with that!

Over the years, I’ve been told that eating meat is natural. Reading between the lines, I suppose the statement being communicated is that being a vegetarian is unnatural. In the next few posts in this series I will discuss what I think is actually unnatural: the predominant method of meat production in the United States today.


Problems on the Urban Gardening Front . . . .

My boyfriend and I spent this weekend planting our vegetables and herbs in the limited space we have around the front entrance and the balcony of our condo.   (We live in the Seattle area.) We were behind, but finally this weekend we filled our pots with organic soil and planted our first round of vegetables and herbs: tomatoes, chard, yellow squash, cucumbers, yellow beans, green beans, lettuce, thyme, basil, and oregano.  Everything is in pots except for the squash and cucumbers, for which there is a tiny bit of land adjacent to the walkway that we were able to use.  Turns out, we should have waited one more weekend.

When I checked the mail today I saw a bright yellow notice on the bulletin board next to the mailboxes: “Washington Tree Service will be spraying on 5/25.”  You have got to be kidding me.  I am furious.  Neither Dave nor I checked mail on Monday and the notice wasn’t there on Saturday.  This means the homeowner association gave us (our mailboxes, really) less than 24 hours notice.  I knew spraying would be an issue, but I figured they would give at least a week’s notice.  That would give me time to bring all the pots inside, and cover whatever I couldn’t move with plastic.  Apparently I was dreaming.

To come home to find that while I was out, some “service” came and poisoned my soil and my vegetables feels intrusive.  It feels like theft.  The point of growing our own vegetables is so we have locally grown, fresh, great tasting vegetables NOT laced with pesticides.  My homeowners association just took that away from us.

What do I do?  The thoughts going through my mind right now are the following: 1) contact the homeowners association and inform them that 24 hour notice at the mailbox bulletin board is not enough, 2) question the association on why we are hiring companies to spray our land with poison, 3) call Washington Tree Service and find out a) what chemical(s) they sprayed and b) what their method was, and 4) begin a petition with my neighbors to ban the homeowners association from using herbicides, pesticides, fungicides on the property.

Any thoughts on this?  Am I on the right path?  Are there other things I can do or I’m not thinking of?  Any help or thoughts are appreciated.

Sleepless in Seattle,


Update, 5/26: Has anyone ever heard of Ecotec TM (insecticide) or Sporatec TM (fungicide) from Brandt?  According to my homeowners association, Washington Tree Service provided the “natural choice” service; meaning they used Ecotec and Sporatec.  According the Washington Tree Service, these are made with “all-organic fish- and seaweed-based compounds, plus essential oils” and are certified organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Hmm.  Perhaps this is safe for humans; this makes me feel a little better.  My next question though, is it safe for bees?  The Brandt website says the essential oils “block octopamine neuroreceptors in insects and mites, and also provide a temporary covering to the pest’s outer membrane leading to a smothering effect.”  Does it smother the honey bees and native pollinators too?

Update, 7/02: I’ve received a lot of search terms for these pesticides.  Here are the labels for Brandt Ecotec TM (insecticide) and Brandt Sporatec TM (fungicide) if you are looking for more information. (Thank you Kevin!) Feel free to comment, I’m interested in hearing about your questions and concerns!

This Omnivore’s Dilemma

This past weekend, Dave and I received his first delivery from Thundering Hooves, a family farm in Walla Walla, Washington, that produces pasture-raised and, perhaps more importantly, pasture-finished and sustainably produced meats, including beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and pork.  In light of this, I thought it would be a good time to analyze and evaluate one of my Earth Day 2010 goals.  Goal #3 was to “find a pasture-raised, pasture-finished source of meat for my boyfriend.”

Perhaps you are wondering why I said “for my boyfriend.”   Why not for me?

Well, the reason is, after reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser in 2002, my meat-eating days came to a screeching halt.  Though I’ve rarely, if ever, used the term “vegetarian” to describe myself, others do.  I eat turkey once a year, at Thanksgiving, and fish occasionally. (Regarding fish: As I have learned more about the overfishing of the oceans, the horrors of fish farming operations, and the pollutants in the earth’s waters – the most scary being PCBs, mercury, and dioxins – I’ve begun questioning this choice as well and have become increasingly selective regarding the fish I eat.)  I digress.

Eric Schlosser’s investigative journalism in Fast Food Nation takes readers on an enlightening journey describing the development of fast food and how fast food has shaped our industrial food system. Among the topics he discusses are McDonald’s and other fast food chains, soft drinks, factory farming, marketing, obesity, potato production and French fries, and even a fascinating insight into flavoring companies. However, the most impactful part of the book for me was meat production. The factory farming of animals, which I will define in the next post in this series, disgusted me.


New Hunt’s Ketchup

The New Hunt's Ketchup

While Dave and I visited his family in early May, Dave’s mom pulled out a bottle of Hunt’s Ketchup.  Right there on the label, it said “no high fructose corn syrup”.  Dave picked it up and proudly showed me the label.  I was curious.

It turns out, in April, ConAgra Foods announced they have removed high fructose corn syrup from their Hunt’s brand ketchup.  ConAgra is not charging more for the new ketchup.  The new “100% Natural Ketchup” has five ingredients: tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, salt, and seasonings.

ConAgra was clear in their announcement of this switch, that it was in “direct response to consumer demand”.  I never thought I’d say this, but “yea ConAgra!”  That said, ConAgra still gets a stick because the switch wasn’t made for environmental, human health, or food policy concerns, but a carrot for responding to “consumer demand.”  ConAgra should listen to us more often.


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