What's Cooking Sustainable

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Kim O'Donnel
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 19, 2006; 11:00 AM

Calling all foodies! Join us for a sustainable edition of What's Cooking , our live online culinary hour with Kim O'Donnel , who is online from Monterey, Calif., with the latest updates on sustainable seafood and agriculture.

A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump's New York Cooking School), O'Donnel spends much of her time in front of the stove or with her nose in a cookbook.

Catch up on previous transcripts with the What's Cooking archive page.

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Kim O'Donnel: Good morning from Monterey, Calif., where it's chilly and foggy. I hear sea lions jabbering from my window, which overlooks the Monterey Bay, and the view of the wildlife is positively inspiring. I've been here attending "Cooking for Solutions," an annual event hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium, which brings together industry, academics, scientists and the media to talk about the latest goings on in the sustainable food world. That means seafood, livestock and agriculture are all fair game, with the prime goal of preserving our land and our seas. It's a whole lot more complicated than that, and even armed with all kinds of information, I'm still confused. News is coming out every single day on one aspect of the sustainability and our food systems, and it's important to tap into what's being discussed. I will do my very best to answer your questions -- but bear in mind I'm still sifting through the information myself. We can talk meat, seafood, dairy, wine...health, organic, local, industrial, whatever is on your minds and what you don't understand. The thing to understand that sustainability is really a conversation about our future, so it's not a niche topic for the elite or the eco-set, it's a topic for all of us..it affects our wallets, it affects our health, it affects the health of the planet. So, let's get to it, and we'll see how it flows...

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Milk products: Kim,I'm glad you're doing this special chat today! I'm not sure that this falls under this category but I hope you can help me. I recently found out that most mass produced milk is produced by cows who have their calves taken away from them (so that we can take the milk and they feed the calves formula). And then the cows are impregnated again immediately after their milk starts to dry up. I was appalled by this! What I'm asking is do you know of any brands of milk that are produced in a more friendly way? I swore off milk for a while, but there are some things you just need it in and rice or soy isn't a good substitute. I read the other day that Horizon wasn't all that great a company either, but in most stores seems the only alternative.

Thanks!

Kim O'Donnel: Milk and dairy is definitely part of this conversation. It's worth checking into organically produced brands that are without recombinant bovine growth hormones, steroids and antiobiotics that are used to stimulate milk production. Stay away from those. Problem is, one brand, Horizon, as you mentioned, is owned by Dean Foods, which also happens to be one of the, if not the largest conventional milk producer, and those Horizon cows may not be seeing any grass in their lifetimes. That's not the kind of milk you want be drinking. One alternative that has been cited by several in the know is Organic Valley, which works as a cooperative with small farms. It's my understanding that there's a lot more care and grass time for these cows. Another thing to consider is regional dairies. Say if you lived in California you might consider Clover Stornetta, as one example. Also check to see if your local farm market is selling milk produced nearby. That's onen sure fire way of finding out exactly how those cows are being raised and milked.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What are the least sustainable foods to produce? (i.e., what should I know to avoid at the grocery store, without doing background research on every item I think of buying?)

Kim O'Donnel: A broad question, indeed. Without knowing if you're interested in meat, seafood or produce, let's discuss a theme that may be helpful no matter what you're shopping for. First, think local. The closer you are to the source of your food, the less impact on the environment. Here's an example: You have a choice of buying a head of romaine lettuce that's been grown on a farm 60 miles away and picked within the past 24 hours and perhaps sold by the guy who picked it, or you can buy a bag of romaine in a box at your supermarket which was trucked in 1500 miles away and used fossil fuel energy to do so. I say go with the nearby lettuce. YOu're supporting a local farmer, whose livelihood is in serious jeopardy due to agro-business monopolization of land acreagae. You're participating in a transaction that requires less fossil fuel energy to get to your table, and you're probably eating letttuce grown without use of pesticides and other chemicals. That's the first line of thinking to get you in the mindset. Now, it's not always possible to eat locally, but it's worth a try. If you're online, let me know if you've got more specific questions.

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Arlington, Va.: Kim -- is the conference focusing exclusively on what we can do with our current agricultural practices or is it covering lifestyle choices as they relate to sustainability as well?

Curious as the sustainability factor is one of the primary reason I'm a vegetarian (everyone thinks we're all animal rights activists, but that's another conversation).

This would't necessarily have to focus just on plant based diets, but also local foods, native products, and so on.

Kim O'Donnel: The conference has focused on how past practices have contributed to our current situation -- depletion of marine life, pollution of oceans, PCBs and other toxins in our seafood, depletion of water and fossil fuel -- and what industry is doing to respond to that as well as lifestyle choices. As for whether one needs to be a vegetarian in order to live a sustainable life, that is for another conversation. There are meat and seafood suppliers here that would beg to differ, as you can imagine, and if there's one thing I can say about all of them, they're very passionate about their work.

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Munich, Germany: The more I read about the depletion of fish resources in the oceans, the more I imagine a future where the only edible thing left in the seas are man-made cultures of algae and perhaps tofu. Well, yes, perhaps that's a pessimistic viewpoint.

I once thought that fish farming could be the savior of the oceans, but the salmon farming industry seems to have taken something good and caused widespread disease and depletion among the wild salmon population. Eel farming hasn't contributed to the re-growth of Eels stocks, either.

For the last three years, I've forsaken buying cod because of its imminent extinction from a commercial viewpoint. However, I recently read an article on Cod Farming that gave me reason for hope

( New Cod on the Block (Guardian Unlimited, April 30)).

I just hope that the growing Cod farming industry will sidestep the mistakes of the salmon farms, and avoid contaminating the wild populations and ruining the environment around the fish enclosures.

Kim O'Donnel: Hey Munich, keep your eyes peeled over next few weeks for a piece by Paul Greenberg, who's been studying this very issue, specifically about cod farming. I believe he said it would be running in NYT Magazine. He presented yesterday, and I don't want to spoil the story, so stay tuned.

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Richmond, Va.: Hi Kim,

Our local grocery chain sells farm-raised fresh salmon and trout with "dye added." When I questioned them about this, they said, it was "only beta carotene.' I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, so I know that all varieties of salmon are not the same bright orange color. Is this "dye" really harmless (or necessary)?

Kim O'Donnel: The dye used in farmed salmon is to cover up its gray color, unlike its naturally pink counterpoint that gets its color from eating things in the sea. There are lots of success stories in aquaculture, particularly with forms of shellfish, tilapia, catfish and caviar, but farmed salmon has been a bit of a disaster. One of the biggest problems is that salmon are carnivorous and in a farmed situation, this is an environmental conundrum. I learned yesterday that for one pound of farmed salmon produced, it requires 2.5-3 pounds of wild fish to feed it. That's a bucket load of wildlife. In the open net situations, a lot of waste passes out and pollutes the oceans, also contributing to local water pollution. PCBs and other contaminants have been found to be higher in farm salmon...and there's a concern of interbreeding of farmed and wild salmon, with the ongoing problem of farmed salmon escaping into the wild. I know, this is an earful. Keep in mind that with farmed salmon you need to consider not only environmental issues but health as well. As for trout, it's been considered a fairly good 'eco' choice, but there have been reports of PCB and mercury contamination.

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MBA: I just want to give props to Monterey Bay Aquarium for their printable fish guide. I keep one in my wallet and it has influenced what I buy and order in restaurants. It is interesting to know that some fish are better farmed and others are better wild.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes, their pocket guides are incredily helpful. And over the past five years, they have expanded these cards from national to regional, which means if you live in land-locked Atlanta, you can get a hold of the "Southeast" card which will give you a rundown of the best and next best choices. I'm thrilled they've got them in Spanish, too. And if you have no idea what I'm talking aoubt, go to mbayaq.org and click on Seafood Watch. You can print out a mini pdf of the card. I'm also inclined to get a bunch of cards to pass out to whoever wants one in the DC area. Stay tuned.

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Silver Spring, Md.: First, TOTALLY jealous of where you are right now!

I'm stumped/shocked every time I see Chilean Sea Bass listed on a menu. What kind of progress is being made to ensure that restaurants reduce/stop their purchase of this fish?

Kim O'Donnel: Well, there has been a campaign called "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" which essentially is education and awareness on the depletion of the Patagonian toothfish, which chefs around the country have committed to. I'm sorry you're still seeing it on menus -- f you see it on a restaurant menu, I say speak up and ask to talk to the chef. Your voice needs to be heard.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You suggest buying local produce (I am assuming I can't really get this at my chain-super market). How do I find a place that sells local fruits and veggies?

Kim O'Donnel: Your local farm market is the first place to go, Silver. You've got one in your hood, both in Takoma and Silver Spring, on the weekends. Also, Bethesda co-op sells local produce, and in Whole Foods, depending on its location, will label when it is offering locally produced goods.

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Washington, D.C.: You might also consider going on environmental non-profit Web sites to get info on sustainable fishing, more enviro conscience eating.

One such NPO is Ocean Conservancy

Cheers!

Kim O'Donnel: World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense are others, as well as the folks at Seafood Choices and EcoFish. I'm not mentioning all, but this should get you started. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Kim, is the conference addressing ways to promote this type of food to the regular public? Too many folks tend not to think of their food this way, and as you mentioned think of this as an elite issue. While I certainly understand the desire to take the easy way out and buy for convenience, the public at the same time seems to be more attracted to organic foods -- which shows promise for extending this conversation.

Kim O'Donnel: You make an excellent point, and that has been raised A LOT this week. The conference yesterday was closed to the public, but today and tomrrow, there is a huge public event, kind of like an education fair with chefs, educators, lots of food raised sustainably, lots of info. They are expecting thousands over next few days which shows level of interest. I hope to be writing more about this in coming weeks, but basically, the watershed moment for this movement happened recently, when Walmart, that's right Walmart, has decided to get into organics. They have made a commitment to start carrying sustainable seafood, within next 3-5 years. Walmart as largest retailer in the universe, now part of this conversation...how fascinating is that. A lot to talk about!

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you, Kim, for addressing this important topic. I am interested in learning more about these large conglomerations that are moving into the organic market because its profitable. Since the feds started regulating organic foods, it seems as though everyone is jumping on board. Can you recommend certain brands (like your above-mentioned Organic Valley) that stay truer to the real meaning of organic -- at least those that we can actually find in Whole Foods, etc.?

Kim O'Donnel: As Michael Pollan says in his new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" Whole Foods is a great storyteller. It wants consumer to believe everything they sell is coming from an idyllic pasture and it's just not so. Industrial organic is very much a reality in many cases, and it's a buyer beware scenario. Read labels carefully. Do homework online, with places like Organic Consumers Assocation. Read as much as you can. Today I won't get into brands, but please feel free to bug me about that in coming weeks.

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Arlington, Va.: Didn't mean to suggest that one needed to be a vegetarian in order to live a sustainable life ...

There are many issues there though -- you just brought a related one up: how many pounds of food does it take for one pound of another food (grain for beef, little fish for salmon, etc). Glad to see it's being covered. Obviously we don't eat grass but cows may be grass fed (most aren't), so it's not a simple issue.

Non-veg comments:

Water (irrigation, for livestock) is a big issue too, isn't it?

And population size affects how much we need to produce and how efficiently, I think. Maybe if more people could/would garden ... rooftop gardens anyone?

Kim O'Donnel: Water irrigation is a HUGE issue, and there was lots of talk about that yesterday on how to address. Another comment that was bandied about a lot yesterday -- we in the US are overfed but undernourished. How's that for provocative? I hope we can continue to discuss this nugget.

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Re: Milk: I'm so glad to hear about people educating themselves about where their food comes from. I take it for granted that I might have a little more knowledge because my grandparents were dairy farmers. It is interesting to hear surprises about why/how cows give milk. Milk from an animal is like milk from a person -- it is produced to feed babies. If we want the milk from the cow for us then we have to take it away from the baby. Or we use hormones to trick the cow's body into thinking that it is pregnant or nursing. I'm not sure there is a way around it if you want to drink cow's milk.

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for your comments.

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Rome, Italy: Dear Kim,

I've been living in Italy for the past year and have become passionate about cooking fish. I noticed that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Web site does not have international information on sustainable seafood.

Any advice on how I can find out what fish to buy in Italy?

Kim O'Donnel: Great question. One thing I can tell you is that Unilever, a humungous corporation, sells Marine Stewardship Council -approved frozen seafood throughout Europe. I don't know about Italy, but that's a question I can find out for you. The MSC label means that fisheries have been approved based on standards set by Marine Stewardship Council and other NGOs, like World Wildlife Fund. But...a seafood card for Italy -- wouldn't that be fabulous...Europe, N. America and Japan are among three top consumers of seafood globally, so it's critical that consumers have this kind of info. I think I need to pass your thoughts on to my colleagues here. Thanks for checking in.

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Re: Buying Local Produce: I believe that some chain grocery stores buy local produce when it is available. (At least I have seen TV ads that indicate this.) The important thing to do it ask, because if they don't have it they will know that you want and perhaps work to change their practices. I personally prefer to get mine from farm markets, but that unfortunately isn't an option for everyone.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes, you must ask. Problem is, that staff in supermarkets may not always know. Have you ever gone to seafood counter and asked where shrimp is coming from, and clerk looks at you like you've got three eyes? Yeah, that's still a reality. If it's cost you're worried about, here's something to consider, that was on the minds of many here yesterday -- that food and fuel are tied at the hip. A large percentage of fuel production is used for food production and transport. So how we would likek to spendn our money -- on fossil fuel use or for a farmer who is taking care of his land? Yes, food at farm markets may seem more costly in comparison to what is in supermarket, but perhaps it's the fair cost of food. We're paying the farmer, not the big corporation, and believe me, the small farmers are far from rich.

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Clarendon, Va.: An important consideration in answering both your first two questions: much organic dairy production is shipped from the West and Midwest to the Eastern population centers, whereas most of the conventional milk marketed locally is from farms in the East.

So organic, whether Horizon or Organic Valley or other brands, are actually less sustainable (as defined by fossil fuels used to transport them) than conventional brands which are produced and processed locally.

Kim O'Donnel: But you gotta check on the rht factor -- that's growth hormones, plus antiobiotics and steroids. Big consideration when you're buyingn milk, local, conventional or organic.

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Washington, D.C.: What a great topic for a chat, Kim. Tell me: Do you think that our local farmers, who sell at the Freshfarm farmers markets here, are necessarily using sustainable practices?

Kim O'Donnel: I do. And really, the way to find out is by talking to them. Start up a conversation with one of them next time you go. They're happy to tell you about how they're growing stuff, and what they go through to bring you food to market.

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Alexandria, Va.: Maybe this is a silly question, but I have to ask. What exactly does "sustainable agriculture" mean?

Kim O'Donnel: It's not a silly question at all. This was discussed many times yesterday. What the hell does 'sustainable' mean anyway? As Fred Kirschenman, a fellow at Iowa State University and long time organic farmer said...'when we talk about sustainable, we're talking about our future...it's not about tweaking and 'just going organic' it's about stopping no more waste, it's about conservation as well as repair of our lands and seas and it's about finding more energy efficient ways of producing food. He went on, but really it's about systems of producing, supplying and selling food that not only protects land and sea, but ways of looking at everything as connected -- natural resources, human beings, wildlife, business and commodity -- instead of just a means to an end and simply using lots of fuel to ship a case of wine or drinking water from Fiji. I know that may be a lot to take in, but consider eating, as Wendell Berry said, as an 'agricultural act.' It's not just about drinking milk from a box. A lot more goes into it, and the discussion has moved from niche to mainstream. Let's see what the WalMarts of the world are going to do about it. I'm eager to see.

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Re. local farmer's markets: You do have to talk with the farmers -- they are not all organic. I spoke with one last fall who had some gorgeous fancy squash -- he went on about how you cannot grow them without investment in a lot of pesticide (well, that's debatable, but I guess he thought he couldn't).

Kim O'Donnel: Right. And often you meet livestock farmers who are not able to afford organic measures to meet standards but who are still practicing humane husbandry. The farmers you'll find are very forthcoming. Thanks for the thoughts.

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Fairfax, Va.: Kim, I know this is off topic, and you likely won't post it. But Unilever is one of the largest makers and sellers of skin bleach in Africa, which is both medically dangerous and racist. As you said, Unilever is a HUGE corporation -- but they're incredibly hypocritical. Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" v. "use our products to lighten your skin, even if it poisons you!" I'd like to see more people trying to stay away from Unilever.

Kim O'Donnel: I'm happy to post this. There are lots of controversies in this converation. Yesterday one chef who happens to serve totally biodegradable plates and cutlery in her restaurants also happens to do business with Coca Cola. One chef, a noteworthy sustainable advocate here and in Mexico, was touting a Burger King sandwich on their commercials. Keep reading. Keep telling me what you know. I don't know much about Unilever and their division with Dove, but I'm making a note. Thanks.

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OrganicGal: Another good source of information, specifically regarding organics, would be from the National Organic Program accredited certifiers. Most are quite willing to talk to folks interested in organics. There's a listing of who those certifiers are at the NOP Web site, National Organic Program .

I currently work for an organic certifier in North Carolina, and we are completely regional (we only certify entities in the Southeast), and I would LOVE for folks that have questions about organics to call me!

And yes, this is the same OrganicGal that used to work for an organic certifier in Nebraska...I've relocated, and am LOVING the long growing seasons here in N.C.!

Kim O'Donnel: Great to hear from you. Please send me info by e-mail when you get a chance: kim.odonnel@washingtonpost.com

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Restaurants: Kim, do you know of area restaurants and chefs who purchase from suppliers using sustainable techniques. Personally, I am very interested in sustainable seafood because few people, even environmentally-conscious people, understand that fish populations are seriously depleted. Thanks for chatting on this today, and I hope you will continue to raise these issues in future chats and columns.

Kim O'Donnel: Chef's Collaborative is a good place to start to find out who's doing what. They have a Web site. Last night, a bunch of chefs were honored for their commitment to sustainable seafood issues, including Nancy Oakes (Los Angeles), Louis Osteen (South Carolina), John Shields (Baltimore), Nina Simonds, Melissa Kelly (Maine)...John Ash, from Calif. wine country also here, as well as Rick Bayless. But if you're keen to know who's doing what in your own town, let me know where you live.

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Kim O'Donnel: I gotta run -- getting a tour of Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley as well as a local abalone farm, so I must be on my way! Tell you all about it next Tuesday. Hope this was helpful and has got you thinking, and please feel free to ask me about these issues that affect ALL OF US anytime. I'm at your service. Til next Tuesday at noon...all best.

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