Category Archives: Food politics

No Cause for Alarm: Food Safety and Farmers’ Markets

We read this recent opinion piece in the New York Times after a skeptical friend sent it to us. A few days later, another friend, a science journalist, sent the same article to a group of farmers (including us), asking if anyone would draft a letter to the editor in response. After checking out the piece and its source–this unpublished working paper–we agreed that the author, Marc Bellemare, was overstating his results when he sounded the alarm that farmers markets are correlated with a higher incidence of food-borne illness per capita. To his credit, Bellemare reminds readers that the correlation that he found does not imply causation. But reports like this get picked up and repeated without the caveats that Bellemare included in his article. We agree with our journalist friend who said that the New York Times gave Bellemare a big megaphone for results that are less than conclusive.

To understand the difference between correlation and causation, imagine reading that states with more traffic accidents also had more food-borne illnesses. Another way of saying this is that there is a positive correlation between traffic accidents and food-borne illnesses. It would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that traffic accidents caused the illnesses, or for that matter, that illnesses caused the accidents. Similarly, there is nothing in Bellemare’s results that would prohibit the conclusion that food-borne illness caused increases in farmers markets, rather than the other way around.

Still, a correlation between two variables is usually the first clue that they might be related. The stronger the correlation, the more likely it is to catch a researcher’s eye. If you look at the figure above, you see one of Bellemare’s main results. It shows a correlation between farmers’ markets per capita and a variable that is not well-explained in the paper, but which presumably represents all reported outbreaks of food-borne illness. The green dots are the actual data, the red line is a type of trend-line, and the blue shape is the uncertainty about the location of that trend-line. The steeper the trend-line, the stronger the correlation, so a flat line would indicate no correlation.  Look at the actual data points (green dots). If you were looking at the data for the first time, without the blue shape and red line, would you think there was a relationship, or would this just look like a blob of points?  If you do think there is a relationship, is it a strong relationship?

We don’t think so. To us, it looks like a shotgun blast of points that show no trend. But even if you think it does show a trend, it would still just be a correlation.

Mistaking correlation for causation is a common error that we have written about before. What bothers us most is the New York Times should have known better. By publishing the piece with the headline, “Farmer’s Markets and Food-Borne Illness,” the NYT is implying that shopping at farmer’s markets increases the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. This, despite the fact that in the conclusion of his unpublished working paper, Bellemare himself writes “from a policy perspective, it would be a mistake to take the results in this paper and discourage or encourage people to purchase food from farmers markets on the basis of our results.”

That said, we welcome a discussion of ways to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. It is the responsibility of small and large producers alike to ensure the food that they sell is safe. Regulators rightly focus on larger producers, whose products are available in supermarkets nationwide. Higher risk foods, like cheese and meat, are also more closely regulated, even at farmers’ markets. It is likely that small producers of lower risk foods, like vegetables, are not inspected because the risk of an outbreak is low relative the impact it would have, since each farm serves a small area, and not an entire region.

And therein lies the main safety mechanism for consumers. By shopping at a farmer’s market, you are buying food grown by a member of your community. No-one wants to make their neighbors sick, and we all know that word travels quickly if there ever is a problem. Farmer’s markets give customers the opportunity to make food safety judgements for themselves, by asking producers about their practices, or by visiting their facility. It is when food production is removed from the community that it becomes necessary for the government to step in and inspect on the consumer’s behalf. So until there is actual evidence that food purchased at a farmer’s market is unsafe, we can relax and continue to enjoy farmers’ markets for their fresh nutient-dense food, local economic benefit, and sense of community.

We did send a letter to the editor in response to Bellemare’s opinion piece, but the Times declined to publish it. Here it is:

To the Editor:

Marc Bellemare writes that certain outbreaks of food-borne illness are correlated with the number of farmers markets per capita in a state (“Farmers Markets and Food-borne Illness” Op-Ed, Jan. 17). He rightly concedes that correlation does not imply causation, so for the Times to publish his non-peer-reviewed analysis seems premature and risks sowing undue fear of local food. To imply that farmers markets are to blame ignores that, as Bellemare writes, “most…illness [is] caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food,” no matter where it is purchased. Food at supermarkets is anonymous. But at the farmers markets where we sell in central Virginia, customers can ask about food safety issues including pesticide applications, use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and worker conditions. The Times’ ill-considered publishing of Bellemare’s results stands to misinform consumers.

Ben Stowe and Heather Coiner

Day 4: We bought the farm!

When Ben and I moved onto this property in 2013 we signed a two-year lease with the owners who had farmed the land for a decade as Appalachia Star Farm. Leasing is a great way for prospective farmers to start farming without enormous resourse outlay. For example, we benefited from the work the owners had done working the fields, installing infrastructure, and developing markets. And some farmers craft long-term leases that give them the stability of owning while allowing them to keep their cash. In the end, we opted to buy.

And, as of Thanksgiving, we now own this beautiful little farm!  Michael and Katherine, we will do our best to carry on your legacy of stewarding this land.

The biggest barrier that we faced was, as you might expect, accessing credit. Few lenders will consider offering credit to a small business with less than two years’ track record. And it is challenging to make a farm look as successful on paper as it actually is, because the lifestyle is rich in ways unrelated to the bottom line.

But in a twist of conventional wisdom, the government bureaucracy made possible what the private sector couldn’t. The Farm Service Agency, an offshoot of the U.S.Department of Agriculture, offered us a great loan with a competitive interest rate and a repayment schedule that accomodates our seasonal cash flow. And we have an loan officer whose policy in times of trouble is to “just call me”. Strange as it may sound in today’s cut-throat lending climate, it’s enough to make us feel like our lender is actually trying to help us.

The Farm Service Agency and its many farmer-friendly loan programs are funded by the 2014 Farm Bill. We never could have imagined that there could be such great support for small farmers tucked into its nearly $1 trillion budget.

An emerging community of craft bakers

This last weekend, on our way back from the PA Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference (PASA)–which was totally inspiring–we stopped in on the McGrath’s Brick-Oven Bakehouse in Mecanicsburg, PA.  The McGraths converted their garage into a small wood-fired bakery, using an oven very similar to the one we are about to build here at Little Hat Creek Farm. This is the most recent stop in a journey that has taken us to visit many wonderful bakers, all of whom serve to confirm our desire to serve our community and bake beautiful, living bread.

In December, Ben and I drove all over North America to visit friends and family.  Along the way, we met Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Bakery outside of Asheville, who inspired us with her open-hearted energy and delectable apple pie. Next, after a detour to sunny California to visit Heather’s family, we stopped in on Eric Schedler of Muddy Fork Bakery in Bloomington, IN (Ben’s hometown), who showed off his brand new brick oven and bakery, rebuilt with lots of help from his community after a disastrous fire in March 2014. And then we visited Stefan Senders at Wide Awake Bakery in Ithaca, NY, who hand-built a beautiful and sophisticated rotating hearth white oven. We stopped and visited the oven I baked in while running my first business Pannier Bread Company. While researching our new oven, we have talked to bakers in Hudson, NY and Elora, Ontario. And then, last but not least, right here in our own neighborhood, we welcome Great Day Gardens and Living Culture Farm to the fold!

Does it seem like craft bakeries are everywhere? Not quite. All of these bakeries are less than five years old, and they are all wildly successful. The bakers vary dramatically in their backgrounds, but have converged on a passion for good bread and connection to earth and community that has resonated with us. And they share freely of their knowledge and experience, drawing us and others into their budding community.

It occurred to us, when we were back in the car, that there are more than a few similarities between this emerging community of craft bakers and that of organic-type farmers. They share knowledge, create community, steward the earth, and are obsessed with food! One important difference, though, is that there are far fewer bakers than there are farmers. The young age of these bakeries suggests that craft baking is where organic farming was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. If we imagine the PASA conference in the early 00’s, there would not have been over 700 farmers there, eager to learn more about growing sustainably.  Back then, the idea was still gathering steam — USDA organic certification only started in 1990!  Fast-forward 15 years, and as PASA approaches its silver anniversary, the sustainable farming community is, in the words of Brian Snyder, PASA’s Executive Director, “hitting its stride.”

We want to be around in 15 years when the craft bread movement hits its stride!  We will strive to make a meaningful contribution to that movement, by continuing to push the excellence of our baking, by sharing our experience, and by connecting with others.  Support your local baker and help us change the meaning of “bread”!

Glyphosate + Wheat = Celiac disease?

Several of our customers recently brought our attention to somewhat alarming news in the blogosphere that glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup) is sprayed on 97% of U.S. wheat crops right before harvest. To make matters worse, it seems like these glyphosate residues on wheat are what is causing celiac disease in so many Americans.

If this were true, it would be a good reason for Americans to insist on organic wheat, a notion that we whole-heartedly support.  And some parts of this story do in fact ring true. One trip to the grocery store is all you need to realize that gluten intolerance seems to be much more common than it was even five years ago. It seems logical that we should be able to trace this strong increase back to some change in our environment. It is also not hard to believe that consuming the herbicide glyphosate is bad for you, or that somehow the combination of glyphosate and wheat, which is the main source of gluten in our diet, could somehow produce a toxic synergy that results in celiac disease.

But as much as one might want to believe that there is such an easy explanation for why so many Americans are allergic to gluten, other parts of the story sounded a little too suspect. Glyphosate is one of the most widely available herbicides on the market. You don’t need a license to buy it at any home improvement store, so your neighbors could be spraying it in their yards and gardens. Commercially, it is approved for use on most crops that we eat.  The two crops that we Americans eat a lot of, corn and soy, have even been genetically-engineered to be “Roundup-Ready”–ready, that is, to be sprayed with glyphosate and not killed.  Wheat is not necessarily the number one source of glyphosate in our environment.

So we wanted to get to the bottom this story.  It seems like the original source is a paper published in the December 2013 issue of Interdisciplinary Toxicology entitled “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance,” written by Anthony Samsel, an independant consultant, and Stephanie Seneff, a computer scientist. It struck us as strange that such a paper would be written by someone other than an epidemiologist, medical professional or public health official. But, no matter, the authors could have analyzed someone else’s data in a creative way, so we had a look inside.

The main thing we noticed is that most of the evidence that Samsel and Seneff gather to support their conclusion that glyphosate causes celiac disease is conjectural. For example, glyphosate has been shown to disrupt the mucosal lining of fish intestines, which is “highly reminiscent” of human celiac disease (p. 160). In another example, they argue that since glyphosate chelates iron in plants, that it is “conceivable” that it does the same in humans, implying that the chelation would lead to anemia, which happens to be one of many symptoms of celiac disease (p. 166).  Logical, perhaps, but certainly not conclusive. In good science, these sorts of compelling correlations are what motivate researchers to formulate hypotheses about the action of glyphosate that are then specifically tested in controlled experiments. But bypassing the experiment and jumping from correlation to conclusion, as the authors do here, is more the stuff of pseudo-science.

Samsel and Saneff go on to correlate eleven other actions that glyphosate is known for in plants and non-human animals with symptoms of celiac disease. However compelling the correlations may be, they are still correlations. And mistaking correlation for causation is one of easiest logical fallacies to fall victim to. The widely reproduced first figure of this paper (above) shows celiac incidence rising in step with glyphosate application on wheat. The implication is that glyphosate on wheat is the cause of the increase in celiac disease. But it is equally possible to imagine this graph with any number of phrases substituted for “glyphosate on wheat.” Try, for example: “awareness of celiac disease symptoms among doctors,” “proportion of corn and soy in the American diet,” “per capita incidence of Type II diabetes,” or “proportion of Americans owning an iPod.” They could all be correlated with the increase in celiac disease, which is to say that there may–or may not–be a causal link between the two.

So while we aren’t convinced that glyphosate causes celiac disease, we still don’t want to eat it. We are still concerned about the statistic that 97% of spring wheat (the main bread wheat) that is grown in the US is sprayed with glyphosate right before harvest. This would mean that most conventional flour would be laced with glyphosate residues. We try to buy wheat that is both local and organic, but our reality is that we often have to choose between local, but conventionally-grown wheat and distantly-grown organic wheat.  We believe in supporting our local economy, but this kind of information could change our minds.

When you first look at this figure and its accompanying table, you might come to the same conclusion that Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist arrived at in her blog post: that 97% of spring wheat is sprayed with glyphosate prior to harvest.  But if you look closer, it actually says that herbicides (and not just glyphosate) were used on 97% of the acres on which spring wheat is grown at some point in the crop year. This does not mean that the herbicide was used on the wheat crop itself, it could have been used to clear the fields before the wheat was planted. In any case, according to the above table, glyphosate is not even one of the top three herbicides used by spring wheat farmers, so it’s unclear why it should get all the blame. So where did Samsel and Seneff get the idea that farmers are spraying glyphosate before they harvest wheat?  This Monsanto publication, which discusses glyphosate use in Europe (not the U.S.). It seems likely that this non-peer-reviewed publication could possibly be biased to make it look like glyphosate is more widely used than it is so that more farmers buy it.

Let’s be clear: we are certainly not fans of glyphosate here at Little Hat Creek Farm. We avoid using any chemicals on our crops, and we buy as much organic flour as we can.  But we found the Samsel and Seneff article (and the accompanying news items) to be more provocative and misleading than grounded in good science. Hopefully, their article will be the inspiration for clinical trials that could establish a causal link between glyphosate use and celiac disease. But in the meantime, we do not think there is as much cause for alarm as it may at first seem.

Bittman says: “Butter is Back”

Mark Bittman changed my life a few years ago with his book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The book not only expanded my horizons in the kitchen with its simple recipes, but also served as a sort of desk reference for vegetables, fruits, and grains I had heard of but had never tried.  At the time of the book’s publication, Bittman was a food writer for the New York Times, and I started paying attention to his column.  I liked his recipes for their attitude of, “if you don’t have this ingredient, or the time, or the inclination, just make this substitution/change to the recipe.”  It’s an attitude that led me towards more flexible, adventurous cooking.

More recently, Bittman has transitioned his Times column away from recipes and towards food politics.  He is currently (in my opinion) one of the most articulate advocates for sustainability, real food, and sensible policy.  I was delighted to read his March 25th column, “Butter is Back”.

When I read it a couple of days ago, it was at the top of the “most emailed” list of articles on the Times website.  Perhaps that’s because he says it’s ok to eat butter.

But I enjoyed his essay because of the way he spells out the differences between “real food” and what Michael Pollan famously termed “edible food-like substances.” From the article:

 You might consider a dried apricot (one ingredient) versus a Fruit Roll-Up (13 ingredients, numbers 2, 3 and 4 of which are sugar or forms of added sugar). Or you might reflect that real yogurt has two or three ingredients (milk plus bacteria, with some jam or honey if you like) and that the number in Breyers YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is unknowable (there are a few instances of “and/or”) but certainly at least 18.

The number one reason that I like being a farmer is that I like food.  I like being around large quantities of fresh food.  When I started working on farms five years ago, it was that aspect of the lifestyle that got me thinking, “Man, I could get used to this!” Added bonuses to farmwork are that I get to work outside, work hard, sleep well, and see a physical product of my labor.  As a beginning farmer, it makes me glad to read an essay like Bittman’s and feel like the pendulum is swinging back to the side that I’m working on.

Happy eating, everyone!  See you at the first Charlottesville market of the season next Saturday!    –Ben