Saving Seeds: the Future of our Food

There is a new unsung hero in our midst: the seed saver.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 90% of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields globally since the turn of the 20th century. This dramatic decline in agrobiodiversity has been accelerated by large-scale farmers continuously turning to a more predictable homogenized offering of genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.


From National Geographic's article "Our Dwindling Food Variety"

To put it in perspective, three quarters of the world’s food is generated from just 12 plant and five animal species. Even more, only three plant species- rice, corn and wheat- contribute nearly 60% of all plant-based calories and proteins. This loss means that our food supply is increasingly reliant on a shrinking selection of crops, and when we put all of our seeds and livestock in one basket, they become especially vulnerable to pests, disease, and climate change.

In October 1975, around the birth of the farm-to-table movement, the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) was born. Diane and Kent Whealy started this collective after Diane’s grandfather passed along the seeds of two plants their ancestors brought over from Bavaria when they emigrated to the US a century earlier. Their mission: to preserve and circulate old varieties of seeds no longer cultivated and at risk of genetic erosion. Today the SSE maintains a collection of over 20,000 plant varieties, the bulk of which is stored in an underground freezer vault.  

LEFT: The prolific gardens of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. RIGHT: Kale seeds grown in the garden to be later circulated.

Each year the non-profit grows select varieties to refresh their seed supply. Their Evaluation Team maintains records of each variety’s traits, constantly updating descriptions and checking for inconsistencies. SSE truly celebrates the rich cultural stories that envelop their seeds with an in-house historian that researches each variety, documenting its history and the lives of the people who brought it to their collection.

From Craig LeHoullier's book Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time.

Craig LeHoullier learned of the Seed Savers Exchange a decade after its inception and immediately started experimenting with their heirloom tomato varieties. “Switching from mostly hybrids to mostly heirlooms felt a bit risky,” LeHoullier wrote in the preface of his recent book Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time. “If one were to take the words of many of the catalogs as written, anyone who didn’t grow mostly or exclusively hybrid varieties was doomed to gardens of diseased or dead plants with disappointing yields.” Over three gardening seasons, LeHoullier grew some of the most highly regarded hybrid tomatoes alongside an even larger selection of non-hybrid and heirloom varieties. “The results I obtained clearly showed that the ‘must grow the hybrid’ contention was just not true. The non-hybrids/heirlooms I grew equaled or out-yielded the hybrids in general, with far superior flavors and variety… with the benefit of being able to save seed for the next year’s garden.” Since then, LeHoullier has been a longtime adviser to the SSE and has grown over 1,000 heirloom tomato varieties, enthusiastically sharing his seeds with their 13,000+ member network.

The Hudson Valley Seed Library's renowned Kaleidoscope Carrots.

Three decades after SSE was formed, a librarian named Ken Greene from the small town of Gardiner in upstate New York (a neighboring town of HowGood’s research headquarters!) took a model most of us know so well, adapting it to a blooming seed-saving venture: members “check out” seeds from a catalog to grow in their home gardens in the spring, then “return” the saved seed from mature plants in the fall. The Hudson Valley Seed Library quickly flourished.

The company offers heirloom and open-pollinated seeds for vegetable, flower, and herb varieties, many of which they grow themselves. The heart of the organization is certainly its small organic farm located in Accord, New York, tucked away in the scenic Rondout Valley between the Catskill Mountains and the Shawangunk Ridge. A seed sanctuary of sorts, there they cultivate three acres of production and trial gardens, producing hundreds of pounds of seed each year while learning about new varieties to offer up to the community. They’ve signed the Safe Seed Pledge and adhere to Vandana Shiva's Declaration of Seed Freedom, denying corporations’ the right to own seed patents and recognizing “Seed Freedom as the birth right of every form of life and the basis for the protection of biodiversity.”

The Hudson Valley Seed Library also commissions diverse works of art from local artists to grace their packaging each year, sifting through hundreds of applicants and eventually settling on about twenty to design a unique work for a new variety. Most of the artists are avid gardeners themselves, wholeheartedly understanding and easily communicating the mission of the group through their art.

Photograph by Tony Cenicola from the New York Times article "A Seed Library for Heirloom Plants Thrives in the Hudson Valley"

The tireless work of such member-driven organizations has greatly encouraged the resurgence of biodiversity, bringing scores of heirloom fruits, herbs and countless vegetables back onto our plates. Heirloom seeds are now widely used by several national seed companies, small farmers who supply local and regional markets, chefs and home gardeners alike. This is certainly a far cry from the genetically modified monocrop seeds produced by large corporations, but in order to truly take root and regenerate our food system, it needs to be adapted in a much larger way. In the meantime, let’s enjoy, as LeHoullier puts it, “[our] incomparable selection of historical varieties that have been preserved through the efforts of countless gardeners.” 

Cricket Flour: Our Next Sustainable Food?

A batch of entrepreneurs has sprung up with a new industry aimed at taking the edge off global hunger: cricket flour. 

To the Western palate, edible insects are foreign. For over two billion others worldwide, some two thousand different species of insects already show up in their diets. We’re talking spicy grasshopper tacos in Mexico, deep-fried locusts in China, and beetles throughout the tropics.

For the business-folk who are marketing crickets as a resource to new corners of the globe, the purpose isn’t simply to introduce new flavors to new palates. Instead, crickets are making a name for invertebrates as a sensible, sustainable food with the potential to counter the world’s rapidly expanding population, and its unsustainable dependency on the high-impact livestock industry.

Edible insects, if grown responsibly, are reported by the UN’s FAO as a potential resource to curb this global issue. Crickets, in particular, counter the need for meat because they happen to be nutrient dense, full of vitamins and protein. Harvesting crickets can also be relatively low-impact, low-cost and scalable, making it possible to reproduce in any climate without much technical knowhow.

While the research on the true impact of this expanding industry is still inconclusive, here’s just three of the entrepreneurs working to bring six-legged crickets to a grocery store near you:

In 2013, two students at Brown University started experimenting with crickets, eventually partnering with the chef from The Fat Duck Restaurant to launch a line of protein bars made with cricket flour. Exo’s lineup of bars includes familiar flavors like Blueberry Vanilla and Peanut Butter and Jelly.

They've put together these handy infographics that break down the nutritional value of their bars and show how they stand up to the meat industry:

Infographics courtesy of EXO Protein Bars.

Infographics courtesy of EXO Protein Bars.

Six Foods
Started by three conscious Harvard graduates, their new line of “Chirps” serves up a healthier, responsible version of the potato chip, made with more wholesome ingredients like beans, chia seeds, and yes, more cricket flour. 

While cricket flour is more often a savory ingredient, the folks at Bitty aren’t afraid to bake their dry-roasted, ground crickets directly into their crunchy line-up of cookies, from the classic Chocolate Chip to a fancier Chocolate Cardamom. 

Good News: Food Reform, More or Less

A handful of good food news to get you through the week:

Food Revolution Leaders Urge Candidates to Create a National Food Policy.
“The production and consumption of food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity,” claimed four food reform leaders in their open call to action for a National Food Policy. Why is this necessary? America’s food system is overseen by eight different federal agencies, making reform incredibly difficult. While these food revolutionaries are merely starting the conversation, this may spark a national shift towards increased awareness and action.  
If McDonald’s is going Cage-Free, Everyone is.

The egg industry produces 96% of its eggs in barns full of stacked wire cages, but that might change. McDonald’s recently announced their transition to cage-free eggs, joining other major purchasers like Starbucks and Burger King that already made the switch. Since McDonald’s alone is an annual buyer of 2 billion eggs, its influence on cage confinement in the egg industry is monumental, establishing a new norm.

Worms just may be the answer to our overflowing landfills.
Plastic takes an average of 450 years to degrade, With 100 million metric tons of plastic waste being generated each year, massive amounts of plastic sit in landfills.  However, mealworms have brought us one step closer to combatting the global plastic pollution problem: a promising discovery shows that microorganisms in the guts of mealworms are able to biodegrade plastic, specifically styrofoam, a material previously thought to be non-biodegradable.

Most of Europe Gives GMOs the Boot.
Although Europe removed its continent-wide ban on genetically engineered crops last spring, biotech giants haven’t achieved the hold over European markets as they had hoped. In fact, 14 European countries, in addition to four autonomous regions, have banned
genetically engineered crops from being planted on their soil.

Trying to fight food waste? There’s an app for that.
The United States throws away around 30 million tons of edible food each year while 50 million Americans are food insecure. However, thanks to technology, fixing this problem could be more surmountable than ever with a number of apps that help Americans cut back on food waste at restaurants, in supermarkets, in their houses, and from their gardens. Whether you are looking to pass along leftovers you can’t finish, reduce overbuying goods you don’t need at a supermarket, or donate excess garden crops to food pantries, now your phone can help you cut down on food waste.  

Good News: #ClimateChange Edition

A handful of good #ClimateChange news to get you through the week:

Pope Urges Americans to Get Serious About Combatting Climate Change

Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” was just one of Pope Francis’ takeaway quotes from his speech last week at the White House. Without hesitating to politicize his address, Pope Francis openly supported President Obama’s plans to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions. Perhaps the Pope’s words will be a wakeup call to America’s climate change naysayers.  

Majority of Americans Believe that Global Warming is Happening. Finally!

Recent polling reveals that not only do 63% of Americans believe that global warming is occurring, but also that 51% of Americans acknowledge that global warming is primarily driven by human activity. Given that 56% of Americans deemed the Pope’s public stance on climate change appropriate, it’s likely that his environmentally charged address and new attitudes of human responsibility will help drive Americans towards more carbon conscious lifestyles.

Some Republicans Might be Turning a Corner on Their Climate Change Stances

While Republicans aren’t traditionally a party known for going green, they have been known to go for the green.  And, with a monetary push in the right direction, we might start to hear Republicans changing their tune when discussing climate change platforms. In fact, one Republican mega-donor has committed $175M to republican policy and politics surrounding climate change solutions. With this financial push, more Republicans might be motivated to shift towards greener platforms; at the very least, a 54% majority of conservatives believes that humans are playing a role in the globe’s changing climate.

Obama to Address U.N. with Plans for International Carbon Emission Reductions

President Obama plans to use his three days with the U.N. General Assembly to advance his long-term policy goals surrounding global development and climate change.  Within America, Obama’s Clean Power Plan sets standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32% between 2005 and 2030.  On the global platform, the President is promoting the idea of a global climate change agreement to be reached by the end of the year.  

Surprisingly, China Leads the Global Charge Against Climate Change

Though China is currently the world’s biggest polluter, the country has historically shirked responsibility on the global warming front by playing the “developing nation” card.  However, China’s new leader, President Xi Jinping is changing the global conversation about climate change and is leading by example with new climate agendas. Beyond committing $3.1B to finance low-income countries -- a number expected to double by 2020 -- President Xi has committed China to launch a national carbon market by 2017.  Let’s hope China’s willingness to take positive climate action will spark a global shift towards environmental action.

Good News: #FoodWaste Edition

Our weekly roundup of good food news to get you through the week:

Feds Introduce Plans to Reduce Food Waste by 2030.
From farm to fork, we’re losing 40% of food in America. With the energy that goes into producing, packaging, and transporting every morsel, we’re losing a lot more than just produce.  But soon that will all change. The federal government is getting serious about reducing food waste. The EPA and USDA are challenging Americans to cut food waste by 50% by the year 2030, establishing the nation’s first food waste reduction target.  

Major Food Retailer in California Doesn’t Judge Fruit by its Skin.
6 billion pounds of “aesthetically challenged” produce never make it off of farms each year, despite the 49 million food insecure Americans who are going hungry. Raley’s, a supermarket chain with over 130 locations nationwide, is partnering with a homegrown California startup to  offer ugly fruits and vegetables at a discounted price.  We’re hoping more major supermarkets start to follow suit by joining in the fight against food waste.

Wasted Food Could be the Newest Form of Green Energy.
If food waste were a physical country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind the U.S. and China).  But what if, instead of producing nitrous oxide and methane--two highly potent greenhouse gases--food waste produced energy we could actually use? Many airlines are transforming that vision into a reality. United, FedEx, and Southwest airlines have all started partnerships with renewable jet fuel producers, purchasing millions of gallons of fuel made from wasted food, household garbage, and animal fat. Besides fighting food waste, these fuels produce as much as 80% less greenhouse gases than traditional jet fuel.  

Composting in New York Just Got a Lot Easier.
Joining the fight to keep food waste out of landfills, GrowNYC began collecting organic waste at Greenmarkets across the city four years ago. Now, partnering with the New York Department of Sanitation, compost collection at apartments is catching on and GrowNYC has big plans to make curbside pickups accessible to every New Yorker by 2018.  Given that 31% of New York City's waste-stream is compostable, any efforts to repurpose food scraps can drastically reduce methane emissions that are largely contributing to climate change.  

Expired Produce May be the Answer to Ending World Hunger.
Two major causes of food waste stem simply from mindless consumption: we buy more than we need, and we forget to use food before it expires. A new company, FoPo Food Powderis working to overcome those obstacles by spray-drying nearly expired food into a food powder. FoPo Food Powder's process actually extends a product’s shelf life by two years while helping food to retain 30-80% of its nutritional value. FoPo has big plans to address world hunger, starting with selling its powder to grocery stores, big food manufacturers, and NGOs. 


What Should Foodies Do?

It seems like anyone with a smartphone and an active Yelp account is considered a foodie nowadays. But being a true foodie means more than snapping a sepia-filtered photo of the latest cronut: it means being a conscious eater. As foodies, there’s a responsibility to take an interest in food beyond the mini-feed, considering not just what’s trendy or new, but also how each bite plays into the whole food system.

A few benchmarks serve as friendly reminders to a foodie’s impact, and here’s just a few no-brainers to keep in mind as you climb to ultimate foodie status:

Travel Less

How far would you go for the perfect meal? According to World Watch Institute, conventional food travels an average of 1,500 miles from its origin farm to its end consumer, compared to just 44.6 miles that locally sourced food typically travels. To that end, the conventional food system uses up to 17 times more fuel and produces up to 17 times greater carbon emissions than food that’s locally sourced. While “local” doesn’t automatically mean sustainable, finding your nearest farmer’s market or joining a local CSA is a pretty good place to start for folks looking to step up their foodie game.

Meat Less

The hamburger craze is no passing fad amongst foodies: it’s downright historic. While you can find a new buzzy burger every day of the week if you wish, eating just one less patty each week is like taking your car off the road for 320 miles (18% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture). And, if you’re more concerned with eating your greens than with going green, take a healthy bite out of this: if you indulge in Meatless Monday for just one year, you might reduce your risk of diabetes by 31% and your risk of heart disease by 19%.

Waste Less

Around one third of all household waste is food packaging. When packaging is contaminated with food, it’s harder to recycle (ignoring that Americans send 50% of what could be recycled straight to landfills anyway). The 100 billion plastic bags used by Americans each year can take anywhere from 400 to a 1000 years to decompose in landfills where they release toxins like DDT, PCB, and PAH into our air and oceans. To make sure your food doesn’t contribute to the waste epidemic, try purchasing snacks in bulk and packing them in reusable containers. Also consider using a recyclable water bottle, and buying basic ingredients to cook food yourself (like these easily delicious granola bars).


GoodNews of the Week

A handful of good food news to get you through the final stretch of the week:


Less Happy Meals Means More Healthy Meals.

While McDonald’s remains the dominant force in the fast food world, they are steadily falling out of favor with American consumers. In fact, of 610 Americans questioned on their fast food habits, half said they ate at McDonalds far less than they did just 5 years ago.  Even if McDonalds shifts towards antibiotic-free and cage free chickens and starts serving all day breakfast, this consumer report suggests that McDonald’s problems stem from “a shifting public awareness of healthful eating,” and won’t be solved easily.

Good News for Chipotle Lovers.

The bad news is that, “most meat served by America’s top chain restaurants comes from animals raised in industrial-scale facilities where they are routinely fed antibiotics.” The good news is that some fast casual favorites are raising the bar on ethical animal policies. Both Panera and Chipotle are committed to serving meat from animals not treated by antibiotics. But beware of favorites like Starbucks, Subway, Domino's, and 16 others that all received big fat F’s for their antibiotics and sourcing policies.

Millennials are Paving a Greener Road for the Future of Food.

The number of younger consumers who regularly consume vegetarian or vegan meals is 45%, as compared to a mere 30% amongst older consumers. This trend has paved the way for shelves stocked and menus lined with more vegetarian and vegan options. In fact, if brands intend to stay relevant in the coming years, they can expect to adapt to the new value standards of nutrition, transparency, and conscious capitalism championed by millennial consumers.  


One Step Closer to Ending Monsanto’s Food Control.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency is moving towards a decision that will require Monsanto to add a new label to their herbicide Roundup. That’s because Roundup contains glyphosate, a chemical recognized by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogenic.” In alignment with Prop 65—a regulation that has been in place since the 1980’s mandating that chemical companies must label products that are known to cause birth defects or cancer—Monsanto will need to add a cancer warning to this spray.  


Giant Fans Might Be Our Next Best Defense Against Climate Change.

A British Columbia based company backed by Bill Gates has developed an air-capture plant designed to capture atmospheric CO2.  Previously a task accomplished only by trees, this plant is actually 1000 times more effective than trees at capturing the less concentrated CO2 produced by transportation pollution.  And to boot, unlike trees, these giant fans can convert captured CO2 to fuel and can be built on land that can’t be cultivated.


The Uncredible, Edible Egg: This is How Your Carton Breaks Down

These days egg labels are a dime a dozen. From vegetarian-fed to all natural, marketing lingo might lead you to believe chickens have jumped onto the fad diet bandwagon.  

The reality? About 90% of laying hens are fed mixtures of animal byproducts and corn. The same 90% are housed in battery cages with 67 square inches of room (marginally smaller than a sheet of printer paper). These aren’t the glossy facts you’ll find labeled on your carton. 

To help you separate the bad eggs from the good, we’ve broken down a dozen common egg labels, and where they fall:


USDA Organic
According to this nationally regulated standard, hens are kept outside of cages with access to the outdoors. Hens are also fed organic, vegetarian diets that are antibiotic and pesticide free. 

Pastured/Pasture Raised
Pasture raised hens spend most of their lives outdoors with sufficient space to roam, not to mention access to a barn. Although the organic level of each hen’s feed is unregulated, they can eat worms, insects, grass, and corn, all part of a chicken’s natural diet.

Certified Humane
Though outdoor and free roaming standards are differentiated for pastured, free-range, and cage-free ratings, all Certified Humane eggs prohibit animal byproducts in feed, beak cutting, and forced molting.

Animal Welfare Approved
Ranging and foraging is required for these hens, meaning they enjoy continuous access to an outdoor area covered in vegetation. Hens protected under this label never consume animal byproducts in their feed and never experience forced molting or beak cutting. 


This standard prohibits animal byproducts in feed given to chickens. In practice, this often means chickens subsist on a fortified corn diet. Why is this vague? The label makes no claims about the conditions in which chickens are raised, and furthermore, chickens are naturally omnivores

Chickens are raised outside of battery cages, notably better off than their caged brethren with room to roam and spread their wings. However, this label does not require outdoor access, does not regulate beak cutting, antibiotic use, or the quality of feed. What’s most vague about Cage-Free labeling? No independent third party offers certification for this claim. Producers are merely taken for their word.

Free-Range chickens must have access to the outdoors, a small step up from Cage-Free, though the duration and quality of that access is unspecified (a short period of time on a concrete still counts, to put this into perspective). Feed, beak cutting practices, and antibiotic use all remain unregulated, and this claim also has no third party regulator.


United Egg Producers Certified
Developed by a cooperative that represents 95% of egg laying farms in the country, these completely voluntary standards fail to address battery cages, feed quality, use of antibiotics, animal welfare, and responsible manure management. Egg cartons boasting this label might as well be unlabelled.

Farm Fresh
This unregulated label is merely a marketing gimmick employed by egg producers to create a favorable family-farm image in the minds of consumers.

All Natural
Another label that’s mere marketing, “natural” implies that eggs haven’t undergone any unnatural processes. This offers no commentary or regulation on how the chickens were raised, fed, or treated.

Hormone Free
This marketing ploy misleads consumers. Federal law prohibits farms from giving hormones to poultry, so no U.S. farms of any scale do so. There’s nothing special about these eggs.

Antibiotic Free
While this label guarantees that feed and water have not been treated with antibiotics during any stage of the hen’s life cycle, it is little more than another marketing gimmick. Egg laying hens, unlike chickens raised for their meat, are rarely given antibiotics.

Cold Pressed Juice: A Big Pile of Pulp?

It can be $12 per bottle. It’s an estimated $100 million yearly market. It shrinks piles of pulpy produce into one supposedly nutritional dose. It’s the juice craze.

Juice first hit the market as a diet trend that promised a drinkable shortcut to slimness. Recently, cold-pressed juice proprietors and their illuminati have shifted focus towards health, marketing their goods as bottled elixirs for wholesome do-gooders and fitness junkies who are hard-pressed on time for nutrition. But of late, some experts suggest these benefits are overestimated, and that any nutritional benefits come with environmental drawbacks.

Shall we call it pulp fiction?

While the there's no clear consensus from the scientific community, here’s a rundown on hot topics surrounding cold-pressed juice:

No Pulp? No Fiber.
When produce is pressed, juice is pulled from its pulpy origins. Leftover pulp is often tossed, but along with it goes fiber. Nutritionists stress that fiber has its merits: it clears cholesterol, keeps digestion regular, and, to the chagrin of dieters, staves food cravings.

A Spoonful of Sugar
Popular cold-pressed juices can have sugar content upwards of 40 grams per bottle. By comparison, one serving of Coke (which is currently experiencing its own nutrition debates) has 44 grams. The dietary concern? Juice might just be another overly sweet beverage, allowing a dose of sugar right into the bloodstream.

Vitamins, Sort Of
Most juices boast the benefits of vitamins. While the scientific community has yet to agree on the ability to fully digest vitamins through juice, one debate surrounds those which are specifically fat-soluble. Vitamin A, for example, cannot be absorbed without fat. The typical fat content of juice? Zilch.

Nutritional Intake: Worth the Impact?
Undoubted is the fact that juice production can be resource-greedy. Cold-pressed juice stays cold, requiring energy through hefty refrigeration. Clunky plastic bottles are often destined for landfills (Americans only recycle about 30% of our recyclable waste stream). Good, useful pulp becomes food-waste, often heading to landfills as well, and as the market expands, these impacts expand with it.

Of course, not all cold-pressed juice is unsustainable and void of nutrition. With more time and research, those nutritional benefits might be substantiated. Beyond overall wellness, many juice companies also consider their environmental and social impacts: many use the most recyclable bottles available in order to extend shelf-life and reduce impact, and the best producers employ aggressive composting practices, giving leftover pulp an afterlife.

The point? Juice consciously. While the science of this matter awaits consensus, how can you get romaine, apples, kale, ginger, spinach, cucumber, celery, lemon and parsley all at once?

In one word: salad.