Tag Archives: organic

Another Plant Based Burger Hits the Shelves

It is amazing to see just how “hot” plant based burgers are right now.  It is difficult to spend any time reading food related websites without coming across a reference to either the Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat products. It is a long way from non-meat burgers being sad patties of soy protein, black beans, and some spices on the bottom shelf of the freezer section at your local natural foods store.

Take the Don Lee Farms organic plant based burger:

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I picked up this particular package from my nearest Costco.  The Costco connection is interesting because apparently the company sold more than a million patties in just 60 days earlier this year. [http://www.cookinglight.com/news/costco-sold-more-than-one-million-plant-based-don-lee-burgers]  Now, I do not know if that is a truly gangbusters number for Costco where mayonnaise is sold in literal buckets.

Naturally I felt the urge to try out this new entrant.  A package of ten frozen patties cost about $11, which is a far sight cheaper than the Beyond Burger.  The cheapest Beyond Burger was on special at my local coop for $4.99 for two patties.  In terms of value the Don Lee Farms product was running away with things.

It is suggested that the patties be cooked from frozen, so I fired up the grill and got to cooking:

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The babies cook up fast.  Like a couple of minutes per side and the internal temperature was already in the 150 degree Fahrenheit range.  The patties also got a little crispy around the edges really fast.  Faster than the Beyond Burger and definitely faster than a regular old grass fed beef patty.  As the Don Lee Farms burgers were cooking I noticed a distinct lack of oils or fats which is a departure from the Beyond Burger.  It seemed more in line with more traditional veggie burgers from the 1990s.  Ooooh the 1990s when ordering a plant based burger seemed subversive.

The result is mixed:

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The Don Lee Farms plant based burger was better than any regular non meat alternative patty, but I think it falls short of the Beyond Burger.  It’s a texture thing more than anything else and I kept getting hints of crunchy vegetables from the patty that I could not shake.  Granted, a hamburger is generally a vehicle for a lot of other flavors so when you load your burger down with an onion slide, grilled pineapple, American cheese, and Miracle Whip there is a lot going on for your taste buds to process.

Here’s the thing, we have entered into the “uncanny valley” with plant based burgers.  Each iteration is getting closer to the real thing, but a few components or our own perception is off just enough to throw the whole thing for a loop.  It was easier when you were eating a hockey puck of quinoa, water chestnuts, patchouli oil, and tempeh because you did not expect the ersatz burger to be a facsimile of actual meat.  However, when manufacturers are putting pictures on the package that make the plant based burgers look like raw meat, selling patties alongside actual meat in the butcher’s case, or advertising that the patties “bleed” the experience needs to be spot on.

Until I have had to opportunity to try the Impossible Foods burger, which is only available in restaurants that do not happen to be near me, I am going to reserve judgement on the entire category.  For now these next generation plant based burgers are pretty good at replacing the experience of an actual meat burger but there is just a little something off that is throwing the experience.

Have you tried the Don Lee Farms plant based burger?

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First Order Effects are Only the Beginning

Do you want to spot someone who has zero understanding of an issue?  Ask them about second order effects.

What are second order effects?  These are the impacts of an action that occur because of the aforementioned action but are not the direct intent of the aforementioned action.

What is a good example of a second order effect?  Suppose for a minute that you decide to commute to work via bicycle several days a week.  The first order effect is that you have replaced a certain amount of miles driven with a similar amount of miles ridden.  Attendant to this first order effect is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, less income directed toward fueling an automobile, increase in physical activity, and just a general sense of doing good.

A second order effect, if the number of people replacing car trips with bicycle trips reaches a critical mass, is the reduced need for infrastructure maintenance, repair, or construction.  Another second order effect, again dependent upon the number of people making the switch, is a reduced need for outlets dispensing gasoline so perhaps the number of gas stations decline.  A further second order effect is that workplaces and housing would not need to devote so much space to the transient storage of automobiles.  This would open up a more diverse array of development opportunities since less space would be covered in striped concrete. And so on down the line…

The thing with moving beyond first order effects is that it widens the potential impact of any decision.

Take organic produce as an example.  Most arguments about organic produce fall into a cost benefit analysis vis a vis its potentially greater health benefits, whether from reduced pesticide exposure on the part of the consumer or increased nutrition.  However, there are a myriad of second order effects that may impact the decision to choose organic produce.  By buying organic produce you reduce the potential for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to pollute the ground, water, and air.  By buying organic produce you reduce the chance that farmworkers are exposed to the same synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.  All of a sudden the argument that organic produce is “just not worth it” takes on a whole new dimension.

There is an element of nuance to this approach and nuance is somewhat out of favor in a world dominated by people like Donald Trump and Fox News.  It falls into the same category as externalities, which are economic costs borne by society at large as opposed to the entity that is directly responsible for them.  Think about carbon pollution.  Coal fired power plants do not pay anything for the cost of carbon pollution yet we all bear the costs.  It’s another concept that makes most dotards heads explode.

We need to move the discussion of most issues past just the first order effects.  If we capable of enumerating all of the ways a choice can be beneficial down the line through even the most minor of second order effects the impact might be transformative.

So, the next time your Uncle Carl has one too many wine coolers at Thanksgiving dinner and wants to debate the merits of bicycle commuting, organic food, solar panels, or whatever is on his Fox News hit list spend a minute to explain first and second order effects.

Friday Linkage 6/12/2015

Miles consume my thoughts. I have set some ambitious personal targets for miles ridden on my bike this season and I have already started viewing each ride as a percentage of that goal. It’s kind of sick and awesome at the same time.

On to the links…

No More Beer, Chocolate or Coffee: How Climate Change Could Ruin Your Weekend—Ruin my weekend? This will ruin my everyday ritual. People need to understand the broad implications of climate change.

Renewables Reach Highest Share Of U.S. Energy Consumption Since 1930s—From 2001 through 2014 renewable energy—driven by wind, solar, and biofuels—grew by 5% per year compounded annually. Every step is a step forward to a fossil fuel free future.

As Arguing Against Climate Change Action Gets Harder, the Naysayers get Louder—Here is when you know something is in its death throes. When the most ardent supporters of a contrarian opinion are forced to get louder in order for their views to be heard then the tide has turned decisively against their beliefs. No one will lament the death of the climate changer deniers.

10 years post Katrina – Where have you gone, Mr. Go?—Hurricane Katrina was a natural and national disaster. The impacts were made worse by poor leadership and inept bureaucracy. In the aftermath some good has come out of the storm. The destruction of the Mississippi River delta is now viewed as a catastrophe that made the storm’s impact worse. Efforts are underway to correct some of the misdeeds of our past.

The U.S.’s Biggest Coal Company Can’t Pay To Clean Up Its Own Mines—Who do you think will get stuck with the bill? The American taxpayer. Free market my ass.

Coal: Black Moods—Do you want to know why coal is dead? As the article states the market cap for the four largest American coal companies was $22B in 2010. Today it stands at $1.2B. Chew on that decline for a moment. SolarCity alone has a market cap of over $5B.

Why Haven’t Cities Covered Their Buildings in Solar?—I wonder this every time I see large municipal buildings in sunny locales. I also have this same thought when flying over acres of distribution centers around airports that have roofs just primed for massive solar projects. Between parking lots, warehouses, and city buildings there is more than enough square footage to keep installers working steady for years.

Fueled by Growth in the Residential Segment, U.S. Installs 1.3 GW of PV in Q1 2015—Take a look at this graph for a moment:

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Now, remember that these are discrete quarter numbers, not cumulative, so each quarter adds to the prior quarters to create total installed capacity. Once installed these panels are generating clean power for the next twenty five years or so.

State-By-State Plan To Bring US To 100% Renewables By 2050—100% renewable energy seems unattainable because someone in one state does not understand how solutions from another state are not relevant, but that another technology fills the gap. It also does not help that states are hamstrung by rules written by power companies and powerful lobbying interests to keep old generating schemes in place. There is, however, a path forward.

Minnesota 1st To Require EV-Specific Electricity Rates Statewide—EV adoption will only occur faster if programs like this can be rolled out to more customers across the U.S. As second and third generation EVs become available in the market it will be the ancillary impacts of owning an EV—charging, maintenance, etc.—that will go a long way to determining success or failure.

The Future of Construction Techniques—How we build things, both in terms of the methods and materials used, have a major impact on the embedded energy of a building and the total energy costs over the lifetime of the building. The future of building is coming:

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The Amazing Truth about Costco’s Organic Food—Costco is the nation’s largest retailer of organic food. Not Whole Foods. Not WalMart. People may complain that it is dirty capitalism sullying the organic name, but we are talking about billions of dollars of sales going to a sector that was niche not much more than a decade ago.

You Must Read—Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Product profitability is as much a necessary consideration for food companies as how their products taste. [Page 195]

We all pretty much acknowledge that the majority of food in the modern American supermarket is crap. For every little display of broccoli or kale there are twenty linear feet of Hamburger Helper and its generic equivalents. If you ever want to be depressed about what people eat spend five minutes watching frozen pizzas fly out of the coolers on a given day. It’s amazing.

9781451666731But why does American food seem to suck so much? It’s something that Melanie Warner, a freelance writer based in Colorado, tries to answer in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.

Ironically, our journey into the processed food wasteland began about the same time that people were beginning to fear what was in their food. Who can forget the image in The Jungle where a worker falls into a rendering vat and the processing continues. I bet that was on tasty canned hammed.

Science and industrialization came to the rescue. Basic ingredients like oat and wheat were steamed, rolled, flaked, puffed, baked, and generally abused until these processed foodstuffs were packaged and shipped off to America’s growing supermarkets. In an era when mass culture was taking off it was even better that such products could be advertised nationally on television sets.

Too bad all of that abuse rendered the foundation ingredients essentially nutrition free. So much so that nutrition had to be added back into products like bread. Make bread from whole grains and it is full of vitamins. Make it into Wonder Bread and you need to fortify the hell out of it.

The most telling fact about the reason why so much of our food is processed comes late in the book. In the same section where the quote at the top of this post is located, Warner writes:

Simple items like cheese, frozen vegetables, and chicken breasts have gross margins ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent. Breakfast cereal and snack chips, on the other hand, command margins up to 70 percent; soda and sports drinks offer a ridiculous 90 percent.   That is why you see a constant barrage of ads for Gatorade and nothing for frozen blueberries. [Page 195]

The margins commanded by processed food are important because it not only drives the profitability of the manufacturers, but it dictates where investment dollars will flow. An investor, faced with an opportunity of similar potential success, will choose the project with a higher gross margin unless compelled by some other motivation outside of profit. By and large, our investment community is driven by the profit motive.

The post-World War II fascination with science and “progress” led us, as a collective whole, to believe that we could be separated from nature in so many ways. Our food could be made better by the intervention of man, but in the process something vital was lost and our food became little more than empty calories that expanded our mid-sections.

This fascination also led us, again as a collective whole, away from the kitchen for a variety of reasons. Some of the statistics Warner cites about the amount of time spent preparing meals prior to the processed food revolution are staggering:

Over the last seven decades, home cooking in America has plummeted. In 1927—the pre-TV dinner era—the average woman spent an unimaginable five to six hours a day preparing meals for her family. By the fifties, the food industry claimed that a housewife relying on convenience foods could fix her family’s meals in an hour and a half less, which is still an eternity by today’s standards. [Page 206-6]

There are a lot of reasons for our decreasing cooking time, primary among them is the migration of women into the workforce, but it is an even more insidious death spiral. As subsequent generations come of age, they will not have the institutional knowledge of how to cook and, therefore, cannot pass those skills down to further generations. Even if a person wants to cook there is a learning curve that must be mastered. At some point will we lose the common knowledge of how to operate in a kitchen? God, I hope not but I am not going to place a bet on the positive side of that ledger.

Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Is a short read—thankfully not over pedantic at just over 200 pages of text—that illuminates some of the drivers behind the development of our modern processed food complex.

You Must Read—Just Food

No matter how “primitive” or “pure” the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory. (Page 67)

Food is critically important to the survival of human beings. That is the one salient point that everyone with an interest in food, that is to say every living person, can agree upon.  Once we get past that point, opinions diverge into a million streams of thought and arguments ensue.

9780316033756The usual breakdown occurs across common fault lines: organic versus conventional, GMO versus non-GMO, vegan versus meat eater, etc.  There seems to be little middle ground in between these fractious camps, but James E. McWilliams tries to tread such a space in Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly.

McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, has a problem with food miles:

Food miles are readily popular primarily because they’re easy to grasp and calculate. (Page 46)

I agree with the author that judging the eco-grade of a food based solely on the miles it travels to store or plate is erroneous because it fails to account for so many variables.  Transportation costs, in terms of energy and money, are quite small in proportion to the other costs associated with our food’s production.

Where I disagree with the author is that he fails to address some of the larger aspects of the local food movement.  It’s not just about bringing production of food back to a local foodshed.  It’s about rediscovering local traditions and methods that are lost in a homogenized world.  It’s about accountability in a food system where a single company may be responsible for half or more of a single commodity.

His belief in genetically modified organisms (GMO) I am hesitant to endorse.  It’s not that I do not believe in the ability of GMOs to address problems that arise in agriculture.  It is rather that the efficacy and safety of GMOs does not have to be document before the organisms are allowed out into the wild.  This is an indictment of the regulatory regime surrounding GMOs rather than the product themselves but it is an indictment nonetheless.

There is one place where I agree with McWilliams completely: our love affair with land based protein or meat is the single most destructive dietary decision that we make on a regular basis.  If you chose to do only one thing to benefit the planet, it would be to forgo any meat that comes from a land animal.  Given the state of our oceans and the destructive fishing practices employed it might also be advisable to give up all types of meat.

Meat is inefficient and exacerbates the worst of our agricultural practices.  In the U.S. over half of our two primary commodity crops—corn and soybeans—are turned into feed for animals.  McWilliams asserts:

If once could wave a magic wand and radically reduce meat consumption, all discussion of fertilizer abuse would come to an abrupt halt.  (Page 77)

The key aspect to McWilliams’ book and something that is absent in the majority of writing about food where it seems diametrically opposing views are the only acceptable means of discourse is that a middle way might be possible.  In his own words:

I believe in the notion that a rational and achievable middle ground exists between th extremes of abundance and deficiency. (Page 185)

As the world faces the challenge of feeding ever more people on the same amount of land or less, as arable land becomes degraded, utilizing every option at our disposal may become the default.  What McWilliams proposes in Just Food is that we can produce more food and do away with the more damaging aspects of modern agriculture, but that the current focus on local and organic is a fool’s errand.  It’s an interesting proposal that is worth your time to examine.

Friday Linkage 12/14/2012

I don’t have an open this week.  Everything just seems a little off today with the school shooting in Connecticut.  It’s a sad and scary world.

Here are the links…

The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement—Every few years someone writes an essay about a particular shift in the green or environmental movement.  A while back it was about how the environmental movement was dead.  Now, it’s about a shift to so-called eco-pragmatists.  Okay, whatever.  Here’s my two cents.  It’s not a shift, but an expansion of eco-consciousness that now comprises more demographics than those commonly associated with patchouli and Birkenstock sandals.

The people who have concerns about the environment and the natural world are still present, but a new crop of people are taking to the cause in a different way.  It’s a big enough tent for everyone to participate in the discussion without this turning into the progressive version of the right wing’s “purity tests” that lead to political candidates for high office like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee.

Another Look at a Beverage Ingredient: Brominated Vegetable Oil—Do we really, as a country, have any idea what the ingredients are in the food we buy?  Hopefully, we buy as much unprocessed food as possible because it seems like something comes up every day that is more frightening.  Today, it’s brominated vegetable oil in your soda.  Basically, the stuff is banned all over the world except for the U.S.  Surprise, surprise.  The line that scared me those most from the article was as follows:

“About 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to foods, about 3,000 of which have never been reviewed for safety by the F.D.A., according to Pew’s research. Of those, about 1,000 never come before the F.D.A. unless someone has a problem with them; they are declared safe by a company and its handpicked advisers. “

Teaming Up to Make New Antibiotics—Antibiotics are one of the true miracles of modern medicine.  Through the use of these compounds humans and animals have been freed from the cycle of death related to infection.  Now, through humans’ overuse of antibiotics and a general malaise with regard to developing new compounds, our mastery over infection is waning.  The time to act is now.

How Agroforestry Can Help Combat Climate Change—I read articles like this and it makes me wonder if we have even begun to explore the myriad ways our traditional agricultural systems could adapt.  It seems that if it is not using a giant machine from John Deere the world does not notice.  BTW, don’t the pigs in the pictures look happy?

How to Feed the World without Destroying It—Unlike what some boosters of industrial agriculture say we do not need to destroy the natural world in order to feed humanity.  Plus, the answer is in infographic form:

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Bringing Local Food Communities Online—Farmigo is trying to make the farmers market experience so easy that it’s like ordering the latest garbage book about strange bondage behavior from Amazon.  Sure, you might lose the experience of walking the farmers market, interacting with growers, and being part of a community but it is better, way better, than getting your produce from WalMart.

U.S. Solar Photovoltaics Install 684MW in Q3 2012—The figure of 684MW in quarter 3 of 2012 represents a 44 percent increase over the same period in the prior year.  The installed capacity brought online in the first three quarters of 2012 already exceeds the total for the entire year in 2011.  These are good numbers, but it is my belief that it only represents a fraction of the potential of solar photovoltaic in the U.S.

Solar Panels for Every Home—A resilient power grid would add as much distributed generating capacity as possible because disruptions like those post-Sandy would be lessened.  Furthermore, the condition of our national power grid does not really accommodate the addition of a lot of new power.

Wind and Solar Paired with Storage Could Power the Grid 99.99% of the Time—I think what is missing from the discussion about expanding the use of renewables is that these technologies have moved beyond fringe, in terms of being able to provide power.  Now, the question becomes how much of our grid can be powered with renewables.  Bring it on.

Permafrost 101: Why We Need To Account For Thawing Ground In Climate Projections—The world may not end in 2012 as many people believed the Mayans predicted—I believe they just figured it was too far out in the future to worry about so why waste the time—but there are still things to be worried about.  Zombies?  No.  The effect of permafrost thawing?  Yes.  Honey Boo Boo?  Hell yes!

The Bayou Corne Sinkhole: Massive Oil and Gas Disaster You Probably Know Nothing About—I admit that I had heard nothing about this and I read a lot.  Most of it is not even about Honey Boo Boo.  Honest.  It’s not a natural disaster either.  It’s the result of oil and gas drilling.  This is just horrific.

What’s the Deal with PLU Codes?

A few days ago my father sent me an infographic that I found interesting:

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Could it really be this easy to identify if the produce I am buying in the grocery store really has been genetically modified?  The good folks at Snopes.com laid it out pretty succinctly:

“a five-digit code beginning with 8 signifies a genetically modified product, a five-digit code beginning with 9 signifies an organically grown product, and a five-digit code beginning with 0 (or a four-digit code) signifies a non-qualified (i.e. conventionally grown) product.”

I guess it really is that easy.  Hmmm…

Furthermore, you can Produce Marketing Association’s web site and search for particular PLU codes.  The amount of information that the codes contain can be quite amazing and tell a lot about the food we buy at the grocery store.