Organic Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Clean Nor Toxin-Free

500px-USDA_organic_seal_svgBuying organic food is an exercise in personal virtue: You pay more to consume food that's healthier for you and less damaging to the environment because it's grown without artificial or toxic chemicals.

This powerful perception, based more on belief than facts, goes a long way toward explaining why demand for organic products has grown so much. Organic sales have more than tripled in the past decade, to more than $30 billion a year, while sales of conventional food products have dawdled along at an annual growth rate of about 2 percent.

There's just one huge problem: Neither of the main assumptions driving the growth of organic farming are grounded in science. In fact, there is evidence that organic farms produce as much, or more, pollution than conventional farms and that organic products might actually contain more toxins than other foods.

Like all farms, those that grow organic products rely on fertilizer. Often, organic farmers use animal manure rather than chemicals derived from petroleum or minerals.

In one study of greenhouses in Israel, the use of manure led to much more nitrogen leaching into groundwater compared with use of conventional fertilization. Nitrogen contamination, the study noted, is one of the main reasons for closing drinking-water wells. And by the way, nitrogen from all sorts of farming is one of the main pollutants behind algae blooms, fish kills and dead zones in bodies of water from local farm ponds to the northern Gulf of Mexico.

A broader study of 12 different farm products in California found that in seven cases, those using conventional methods had lower greenhouse-gas emissions. A big reason for the difference? Conventional farming tends to be more efficient than organic farming, meaning fewer inputs are needed to generate the same amount of food.

That hits on a critical issue for organic farming, as noted in a 2012 analysis of more than 100 studies of farming methods across Europe: Getting the same unit production from organic farming tended to lead to "higher ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions." And while organic farming tends to use less energy, it also leads to "higher land use, eutrophication potential" -- that's the dead zones mentioned above -- "and acidification potential per product unit."

The main author of the study, Hanna Tuomisto, a professor at Oxford University, said:

Many people think that organic farming has intrinsically lower environmental impacts than conventional farming but the literature tells us this is not the case. Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realize that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product.

Organic animal production also can cause problems. Unlike conventional farms, organic farms usually let animals wander around. No surprise that animals then do their business wherever nature calls. Rain, in turn, washes waste into local streams and rivers. Think of that next time you see free-range something on the menu. By comparison, conventional farms can (although they don't always) confine waste to covered areas. This prevents exposure to rain that causes polluted runoff.

As for health benefits, the evidence suggests there's no distinguishable difference in nutritional value between organics and other food. Some types of organic production, notably the use of manure concentrations, actually lead to higher levels of toxins in food. One study in Belgium found that organically cultivated winter wheat had higher levels of lead and cadmium than conventionally grown wheat. The levels were below tolerable limits, and processing could have removed some of the contaminants.

So are you worried now? You shouldn't be. Buy what you like to eat whether it's organic or not -- unless you're watching your food budget, in which case the choice is clear.

To contact the author of this article: James Greiff at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at


Video: James Cameron promotes vegan lifestyle

This video featuring James Cameron, Director, Producer, Explorer, and Conservationist tells an audience at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conference that the true conservationists of the future must be strict vegans. Citing statistics and hailing the movie "Forks Over Knives", Cameron notes that creating animal food products for human consumption generates one and a half times the carbon as the entire global transportation system. Eating plants only will be the mark of conservationists of the future who are walking the walk.

James Cameron give money to school to go vegan

Photo credit:

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As we've been reporting, the quest to get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into public schools has once again gotten political.

But in spite of the new, federal standards for school nutrition, "changing a school lunch cafeteria, especially those that participate in the National School Lunch Program, it is like turning around the Titanic," says Susan Levin, director of nutrition for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Education.

However, if you happen to have performed in the movie Titanic, as Suzy Amis Cameron did, and you happen to have founded a private school that you and your world-famous director husband support, as Amis Cameron also has, then maybe revamping a school cafeteria isn't such a tall task. You might even be able to eliminate meat and dairy altogether, and create the first plant-based school in the U.S.

A lot of schools lately have been making incremental changes toward more plant-based options, says Levin. Take the Meatless Monday program, which is now in hundreds of K-12 public and private schools. One public school, P.S. 24, in Flushing, N.Y., even went completely vegetarian.

But Amis Cameron's plan for MUSE School CA, the environmentally focused school in Calabasas, Calif., that she founded with her sister, Rebecca Amis, in 2006, is even more ambitious.

"We are gradually moving toward a plant-based menu because we do call ourselves an environmental school," Amis Cameron tells The Salt. "Within the next year and a half, we will be plant-based."

Private schools like MUSE School CA, of course, have a lot more flexibility when it comes to deciding what goes on, and what comes off, the menu.

Already, the school has a strong seed-to-table program that's producing fresh fruits and vegetables grown by its 140 students. They're guided by the school's full-time, year-round gardener and educator, Paul Hudak.

He and students at the school's two campuses in Malibu Canyon have built 28 raised beds to grow peppers, greens, tomatoes, herbs and other edibles, plus flowers. The older students will also be selling some of the food grown over the summer to local restaurants.

Hudak says now that the schools are growing produce year-round, they can supply up to 20 percent of the food consumed in the cafeterias, depending on the season. "Once we really get cranking, I think we'll be up to 40 or 50 percent," Hudak says.

The Origins Of MUSE School CA

Food played a role in sparking Amis Cameron's motivation to start the school in the first place. She and her husband, James Cameron, one of the world's most successful directors (yes, Avatar, the Terminator films and Titantic), have five children, including one from her previous marriage. The family splits its time between their home in Malibu, their ranch in Santa Barbara and their 3,500-acre farm in New Zealand.

As she phased out modeling and acting in the late '90s, Amis Cameron focused on her children and their education. And as she did, she says, she became increasingly frustrated with the schools they were in: "They were really wanting to put our children in a box."

"The school she was going to — that touted itself as an environmental school — was teaching my child to count with M&M's," Amis Cameron says. "And everything in my life came to a screeching halt."

She and James started talking about the possibility of starting their own school for their children and other kids whose parents were looking for an alternative to the schools in Malibu.

"Jim was trying to decide between doing more deep-ocean exploration, or make a little film called Avatar," says Amis Cameron. "He decided to make Avatar, and I decided to start MUSE. And off we went in our different ventures. Now, nine to 10 years later, it's all coming full circle, dovetailing."

While MUSE School CA has grown to 140 students — two are Camerons, and half receive financial aid — it's still not an accredited school, though Amis Cameron says they're working on that.

She and her sister, Rebecca, have tried to walk the sustainability talk on campus, using recycled materials to build the classrooms, installing solar "flowers" designed and donated by James to power the school with renewable energy, and by hiring a resident falconer whose hawks eat rodents and eliminate the need for pesticides.

The Camerons Go Vegan

Over time, the Camerons' environmentalism — which features heavily in the ecological destruction narrative of Avatar — has become more and more centered around food.

The turn happened, Amis Cameron says, when the couple went vegan in 2012 after watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. The film emphasizes the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and that initially compelled them to empty the cupboards and fridges of all dairy and meat products.

"But what has really been a major eye opener is the connection between food and the environment," says Amis Cameron. "Now, we're benefiting greatly from eating plant-based, as are our children, but the environmental piece has become really our sole focus."

While there is a consensus that the meat industry has taken a heavy toll on the environment, few people agree on what to do about it.

And many environmental scientists are not convinced the solution is for everyone to give up animal products — especially people in the developing world who haven't had ready access to them.

One recent study we reported on argued that to prevent more greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector, we'll get the biggest bang for the buck by helping producers become more efficient and keeping land from being converted for grazing. The researchers say that while consumers in rich countries could stand to eat less meat, it's not realistic to expect us to give it up entirely.

"It's not a matter of giving up meat. It's a matter of shifting to other kinds that have less climate impacts," one scientist told us. So, not as much beef and pork, and maybe more farmed fish and insects.

In addition to transforming MUSE School CA into a vegan school, Amis Cameron is writing books on the environmental impacts of meat production for different demographics — moms, teens, children and thought leaders, she says. The Camerons also regularly give speeches where they talk about their newfound veganism and why they're primarily motivated by concern for the planet.

"Any extra bandwidth that we have is spent on that piece and ... bringing that message out into the world," she says. "We have an amazing platform."

But even with all their influence, Amis Cameron admits that it hasn't been easy to convince other parents at MUSE School CA that the chicken, turkey and cheese currently served at the school have to go.

"Food is a very sensitive subject for so many people," she says. "People have their cultural reasons for eating meat, their traditional reasons, their likes and dislikes. But slowly we are offering educational programs through MUSE, for not only the children, mainly for the grownups, because the children, they live and breath [the environmental way] already."

Is Vegan Healthy For Kids?

Levin of PCRM says that a vegan diet can be healthy for kids — even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has ruled that kids can get everything they need from plants alone.

"Most people assume it's so hard to make kids eat vegan — that it's easier to give them the chicken nuggets and the milk, and the cheese," says Levin. "But I don't think anyone could defend that they would be less healthy by not consuming animal products."

And while Levin sees MUSE School CA's move toward a vegan menu as an anomaly, she says she applauds what Amis Cameron is doing.

"They might be in a privileged position to advocate for dietary choice, but it ultimately shows other people how effective it is," says Levin.

And, Levin adds, many plant-based foods, like rice and beans, aren't prohibitively expensive for schools. "It shouldn't be an entitled program. You don't have to be rich to be plant-based."

The Camerons were the initial MUSE School CA donors, and continue to supply startup funds as the school has expanded from elementary to middle to a high school slated to open this fall. But Amis Cameron says the plan is for the school to become self-sustaining.

"We've capped what we give, and we decrease the amount every year," she says. "But, gosh, it's a great place to be a philanthropist."

Source: NPR





Would You Buy an Electric Car With Leather Seats?

riding a cowI have many different sites in my RSS feed. I noticed an article today on's website. The title of the article is "Will vegans drive Nissan Leafs with leather seats?"

Apparently, Nissan is offering leather seats as an option on their  electric car, the Nissan Leaf. So the article is asking if vegans will buy a car that has vegan seats as an option. So that means that you can choose to have non-leather (presumably cloth) seats on your Leaf. You don't have to have leather seats in your car.

I think the resounding answer would be yes. I would still buy an electric car, but I would opt for the cloth seats over the leather seats. Just because the car manufacturer is offering leather seats as an option, doesn't mean that you need to disregard their vehicle as an option. They (and all other car manufacturers) offer leather seats on all of their other models. I don't think it would make sense to protest Nissan under the guise that they are presumably tainting the "greenness" of the Leaf by offering leather seats.

This just feels like the media looking to drum up controversy where there really isn't any.  Am I wrong here? Do you think that the mere fact that Nissan is offering leather seats as an option on their electric car would stop you from purchasing said car?

This reminds me of an article I wrote a long time ago. The article was titled Vegangelicism — You’re Not Good Enough For My Vegan Club. Basically, vegans need to acknowledge that the world has a lot of cruelty in it and that you can't change the world all at once. 8 million people aren't going to stop eating meat all together just because you suggest that they not do that. But if you can bring some awareness to them about the cruelties, you might get them to ease back some. Let's say that you convinced people not to eat meat one day each week, every week of the year. That would be a 14.3% decrease in the consumption of meat. Logically, that probably means that, eventually, 14.3% fewer cows, chickens, and pigs would need to be slaughtered.

So just because the car manufacturer is offering leather seats on a car that would otherwise help out the environment, the newspaper is trying to create controversy as to whether this would stop people who are vegans from buying the car. Maybe I'm wrong here. Maybe a lot of people would not buy this product. Maybe there are people who would not buy Silk soy milk because Silk's parent company Dean Foods sells dairy products. (Personally, I think you should make your own soymilk, but I digress....) Maybe they wouldn't buy non-leather shoes from a shoe manufacturer who also makes leather shoes. I know there are people who are vegan who will not eat in restaurants where they serve meat.

OK, so am I wrong here? Will vegans drive Nissan Leafs with leather seats? Leave a comment below indicating if Nissan's decision to offer elather seats on their electric car would hinder you, or in any way adversely impact you, from buying such this car.

Food, Inc. Review

Jane and I went to see Food, Inc. this weekend.  It has a limited release, so if you are interested in seeing this film here is a list of its scheduled showings.  (If you are in the Los Angeles area, it is playing at the NuArt in Santa Monica through Thursday, and will be at the Landmark in West LA starting the 19th.)

UPDATE: CLICK HERE to reserve your very own copy of Food, Inc. now:

Since we went vegan, we've been doing a lot of reading about food.  Sometimes it feels like all we do is talk about food: the way we eat, what we eat, why we changed our diet, where we get our protein, etc.  So much of the information presented in this film was familiar to us, but still, it was a worthwhile experience.  And some of the things we learned were truly shocking to us.  For instance, there are laws in place in 13 states which protect food manufacturers from people making "disparaging comments" about their food products.  Manufacturers are allowed to sue under libel laws.  Colorado takes things even further by making veggie libel a criminal rather than civil offense.  Frightening!  I guess I'm just a little naïve here, but I would expect my government to protect me against the big corporations.

Robert Kennar does a good job touching on most aspects of the food industry.  For example, the movie starts out by pointing out that the average supermarket sells 47,000 items but this is truly an illusion of diversity since 90% of the items contain corn and/or soy products, and there are only a few companies at the top level that manage agri-business in the United States.  One farmer comments that the farmer's decision making process has been outsourced to the corporate boardroom.  It's all about the bottom line, as opposed to good stewardship of the earth or animals.

Kennar takes you through a tour of what farming means today in America.  And here we were feeling all good about ourselves for being vegan.  What this movie says Monsanto does to the soy farmers makes me want to give up tofu entirely. Monsanto, the manufacturers of Round-Up, have modified and patented "Round-Up" ready soybeans.  As of 2006 90% of the soybeans produced in the US carry that gene.  Monsanto aggressively protects their patent going so far as to prosecute farmer's who's crops have been cross-pollinated by neighboring farms.  The people who were interviewed claim to have been persecuted by Monsanto, these include "seed cleaners" - Seed cleaners allow farmers to clean and store the seed from their fields to be replanted.  The reason is that, according to patent laws, Monsanto owns the seeds since they own the genetically modified gene.  Yikes!  If you're interested in learning more about Monsanto, check out this video:  The World According to Monsanto.  (Here's a link if you'd like to buy The World According to Monsanto.)

The CEO of Stonyfield Farm, Gary Hirshberg, talks about how many of the eco-conscious companies are now owned by mega conglomerates.  Tom's toothpaste is now owned by Colgate.  Stonyfield is now owned by Groupe-Danone (that's Dannon to you and me). He also defends Stonyfield's decision to sell their organic yogurt to Wal Mart by pointing out that the positive pesticide impact can be measured in tons rather than pounds. So while many people decry Wal Mart as the evil empire, Hirshberg points to the environmental impact, and the fact that this allows more people access to organic foods at a lower price.

Although we don't expect this movie to be as successful as Super Size Me," Morgan Spurlock's McDonald's expose, we hope it will get some additional exposure.  This message really needs to get out to the general population.

The movie doesn't touch on veganism at all, which was kind of surprising to me.  I guess they were concerned their movie might be played in one of the 13 states with veggie libel laws.  There is some exposure to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).  However, the "natural" farmer's method of slaughtering chickens didn't appear all that humane to me or Jane.

We give the movie two thumbs up.  See it if you have any interest in food.

For Further Information:

And there are plenty of interesting videos on YouTube.

Revel With A Cause

santa monicaIf you live in the Los Angeles area and you're looking for something fun to do this weekend, you may want to consider heading over to Santa Monica on Saturday, May 9th.  The Santa Monica Festival: Revel With A Cause will be held from 11am - 6 pm on 5/9/9 at Clover Park.   Although the festival isn't vegan, they're serving meat, there will be plenty of other eco-friendly activities and attractions.

If you are interested, here is a link to the Revel With A Cause site.  It doesn't look like they're promoting a vegan/vegetarian agenda (why doesn't the green movement get on this bandwagon yet?!?!), so there may be an opportunity for some vegans to start a discussion.  If not, there's always the Los Angeles Vegan Bake Sale (more details coming).

Vegan Eating Advocated On Commercial!

sosIf you've been reading this blog for any length of time you'll know that I tend to get on my soapbox about the global warming thing. I find it incredibly ridiculous, that for the most part, the media is ignoring meat production as a prime contributor to the problem. (See: Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, Vegan Eating Trumps Eating Locally, Reducing Your Carbon Footprint, etc.)

Imagine my shock today, when I saw a commercial on the Sci Fi channel for Let's Act Now. The commercial came right out and said your SUV causes less impact to the planet than eating meat. Woo Hoo! Someone came right out and said it on a national television! I'm not sure who is the target demographic for the Sci Fi channel, but we watch it in our home.

Here's their commercial (Thank You Red One for passing it along!)

Mark Bittman And Less-Meatarianism

mark bittman food mattersIf Jane ever leaves me, I'll know where to find her. She'll be back in NY looking for Mark Bittman. She loves the man, even if he's older than the typical male who might turn her head. Why does she love him? Well, there's his cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. She religiously reads his blog, Bitten (he's not the only one writing posts), and column, The Minimalist, in the NY Times.  But more importantly, she loves his message -- "eat less meat." Bittman is not vegan, nor is he vegetarian, but his message may do more to get the average person to consider eating vegan occasionally than appealing to peoples' ethics.

Bittman's new book, Food Matters, talks about the importance of eating less meat, and how that trumps every other action: eating locally, eating organic, eating "humanely" processed animal product (if there is such a thing).  He talks about the 60 billion animals that are killed annually to produce food, and how that is conservatively estimated to double by 2050.

His message to omnivores is to be a "less-meatarian,"  and vegetarians should strive to be "less-dairytarians."  And we should all strive for incremental (and therefore, sustainable) changes.

This is so do-able for everyone.  If you've been trying to convince the people in your life to go vegan, you probably haven't met with much success.  But THIS message doens't require any major "sacrifice."  We can save 6 billion animals if every human cuts down their meat consumption by 10%.  (And 1 billion if we get Americans to eat 10% less.)  10% doesn't seem like an unattainable goal.

Taking A Bite Out Of The Global Financial Crisis

These days, you can't look at your reader, or turn on the news, without seeing stories of financial implosion or economic crises.  Then there's global warming and the costs associated with fighting climate change.  All of this gives us another reason not to eat meat (at least most of the time)...  Turns out that eating less meat could wipe $20 trillion off the global cost of fighting climate change.

Earlier this month, "Climate Benefits of Changing Diet" by Elke Stehfest and colleagues was published in Climactic Change, a journal out of the Netherlands.  (Source:  New Scientist Magazine.)

The underlying premise is that raising animals for consumption causes climate change.  By cutting our consumption of animal products, much of that farmland could then be devoted to growing food crops.  Vegetation helps to absorb carbon dioxide, and there would be a significant reduction in the methane gasses produced by livestock.   These gasses are responsible for global warming.

The current goals to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 are 450ppm.  The estimated cost to achieve this goal is $40 trillion, and it will require a 2/3 reduction in emissions..

Cutting our consumption of animal product will reduce the need for expensive retrofits, such as "clean coal" power plants and other carbon-saving technologies.  It certainly seems advisable, in this economic environment, for all of our governments to consider promoting a less-meat based diet.

Of course, there are other factors which will mitigate the levels of greenhouse gasses saved by producing few animal products... Will the land be given over to vegetation or urban development?  What about the increase in pesticide use to grow additional plant-based food crops?  Does this report take into account any projected improvements in animal-farming technologies?

Regardless of all this, there are many reasons to consider eating less/no meat.  If you haven't already done so, Jane and I would urge you to read Livestock's Long Shadow, and The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health.

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint – Go Vegan

As a follow up to my post, "Reason 812,417 To Go Vegan," here's a quote from one of my favorite resources... New Scientist Magazine.

So for the average American, buying local every day of the year would cut their carbon foot print by only around 4 per cent or 400 kg of CO2eq per year. By comparison, shifting just one day a week from eating red meat and dairy to either chicken, fish, eggs or vegetables lowers your emissions by between 252 kg and 400 kg of CO2eq.  ~  Source:  New Scientist - What is Your Dinner Doing to the Climate?

And if you're one of those people who's having trouble making the jump from vegetarian to vegan, here's an interesting tidbit...

333 grams of CO2eq is emitted to make one hard-boiled egg. Compare that with a bowl of cereal with milk: 1224 grams of CO2eq - equivalent to driving a typical SUV 6 km.  The main culprit in the bowl isn't the cereal, it's the milk. That's because the most emissions-intensive foods are red meat and dairy products. In general, red meat emits 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas as chicken or fish, since rearing cows and other livestock requires a lot of energy. It takes 2.3 kilograms of grain to make every kilo of chicken meat, 5.9 kg of grain for a kilo of pork, and 13 kg of grain plus 30 kg of forage for a kilo of beef. Worse still, they produce methane and their manure releases nitrous oxide.   ~  Source:  New Scientist - What is Your Dinner Doing to the Climate?

(Note: the science of calculating the carbon footprint of food items is not an exact science as it does not necessarily take into account the manner in which foods are produced regionally.  What's been used here is a specific formula not based on generalized data.)