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December 2005/January 2006
Editorial: Rooted in New York
By Catherine Clyne

In November I attended Eco Metropolis, a New York City-focused conference exploring the many ways of being environmentally mindful in an asphalt jungle—addressing food sustainability, waste and pollution, racism, the pros and cons of technology, and the limitless possibilities and promise of human genius.

Yeah, I thought I’d heard it all before too. But a bunch of disparate things started coming together in my mind. As an ethical vegan animal activist, regretfully I admit, sometimes the environment ends up in the back seat in the complicated calculus informing my actions, and I was challenged to examine exactly what my food choices do to the world and what I was personally responsible for.

Eat Your Landscape
“Why do we have cows?” farmer Stephen Schneider suspects we want to know. “For the manure.”

For 30 years, Schneider has been running a 400-acre biodynamic organic farm in Hawthorne Valley, less than three hours’ drive from Manhattan. He’s been selling his produce in the city for years, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) exchanges and at the Union Square Green Market. Before you animal people accuse Schneider of heartless exploitation and tell me to go eat poop, wait.

I learned something from farmer Schneider. At Hawthorne Valley Farm, they have 65 cows, who eat the grass and wheat grown on the land, and poop out some of the most fertile substances known to humans. The manure is composted and fertilizes the crops in a cycle. This is how our food grows. Sure, I’d heard this before, but somehow, this time it struck a nerve.

Yes, the cow’s milk is sold. And I hope that eventually we can work toward not using cows at all, except perhaps as donating their poop to help our food grow.

The dirty little secret many organic produce nibbling vegans aren’t fully aware of is that a large majority of organic farms actually use animal poop, blood and body parts to fertilize their crops—oftentimes the byproducts of the factory farms we abhor.

Veganic farming is a budding technique that we should all embrace, which uses no animal products whatsoever. Ron Khosla, interviewed in this issue, is a pioneer of this cruelty-free organic with his Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, New York.

Until veganic becomes more widely available, I’d rather the poop of free roaming cows, grazing on the grasses nature intended them to eat, fertilize my food than either the excrement and body parts of factory farmed chickens or the cancer-causing chemical fertilizers that pollute our soil, waterways, air, and bloodstreams.

Schneider illustrated how very out of touch I am with one of the most important things in the world: my food. As a farmer, he works within a living, sustainable cycle. In short, he says, “Eat your landscape.” It reminded me of the French concept of terroir, literally tasting the soil, region, weather, and sunlight in a glass of wine.

Can you say your food does that for you?

If Your Food had a Fuel Gauge
As a New Yorker, with the exception of an occasional fistful of homegrown basil, all of my food is transported here from somewhere else, trucked from surrounding areas and shipped or flown in from afar. The bottom line: every bite I eat drips with oil, specifically diesel. Every year millions of trucks, planes and ships, deliver our food while belching out particulates that cause life-threatening breathing problems, heart failure and cancer.

At the northern tip of Manhattan, nestled near the George Washington Bridge, is one of the largest bus depots in the city. The predominantly low-income communities of color surrounding the area breathe in the particulate matter from the buses, as well as the millions of vehicles crossing the bridge, every day. At Eco Metropolis, environmental justice activist Peggy Shepard reminded us of the toll fossil fuel pollution takes on people’s health, in the form of unusually high asthma rates of young children and adults in West Harlem and the South Bronx.

Environmental activist-turned entrepreneur Brent Baker, of Tri-State Biodiesel, is offering a local solution to the problem. He’s starting a refinery in downtown Brooklyn that will produce 2.5 million gallons of biodiesel. After all, diesel engines were originally designed to run on peanut oil; biodiesel is refined cooking oil. With 10,000 restaurants in the five boroughs, there’s an endless supply of…oil—right in our backyard! Baker already has 600 restaurants signed up to have their used cooking oil hauled away. Biodiesel is 75 percent cleaner than fossil fuel and 90 percent less toxic.

Contrary to what many might assume, the individual private biodiesel consumer is a small minority. Brent Baker has his sights set on the heating oil and government fleet markets. Can you imagine? City apartments and bus fleets powered by cooking oil? Rather than the gray, smoggy, oil-riddled air of Manhattan we choke down today, we could be filling our lungs with clean air (albeit with a slight french fry scent). How cool is that?

Does your Food have a Face and a Place?
Where does your food come from? Seriously. Where do the vegetables, beans, grains and fruits that make up our vegetarian diet actually come from? From small organic farmers in upstate New York or New Jersey, industrial Californian farms, far-away South America or Israel?

As an urbanite, I don’t reside very close to farms, but they are closer than you would imagine. Michael Ableman is an organic farmer and photographer whose project exploring our sustainable food growers is expressed in his colorful new book, Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It (Chronicle Books). At Eco Metropolis, Ableman showed slide after slide of urban farmers: cleared lots where communities band together to grow their own produce; a huge rooftop organic garden in the heart of downtown Manhattan.

Another presenter, the visionary John Todd, showed slides of a zero waste community in England, ZedBed, that incorporates farming into an apartment dwelling complex—growing food inside the apartments as part of the design!

Ableman and Todd showed me that city dwellers are finding creative ways to grow their own food right in their own backyard. And I was confronted with discovering, not only where my current food sources are, but finding one good reason why I can’t grow some of my own food, right here in New York. At least I’d know exactly where it comes from.



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