Rooted in New York
By Catherine Clyne
In November I attended Eco Metropolis, a New York
City-focused conference exploring the many ways of being environmentally
mindful in an asphalt
jungle—addressing food sustainability, waste and pollution, racism,
the pros and cons of technology, and the limitless possibilities and
promise of human genius.
Yeah, I thought I’d heard it all before too. But a bunch of disparate
things started coming together in my mind. As an ethical vegan animal
I admit, sometimes the environment ends up in the back seat in the complicated
calculus informing my actions, and I was challenged to examine exactly what my
food choices do to the world and what I was personally responsible for.
Eat Your Landscape
“Why do we have cows?” farmer Stephen Schneider suspects we want
to know. “For
For 30 years, Schneider has been running a 400-acre biodynamic organic farm in
Hawthorne Valley, less than three hours’ drive from Manhattan. He’s
been selling his produce in the city for years, through Community Supported Agriculture
(CSA) exchanges and at the Union Square Green Market. Before you animal people
accuse Schneider of heartless exploitation and tell me to go eat poop, wait.
I learned something from farmer Schneider. At Hawthorne Valley Farm, they have
65 cows, who eat the grass and wheat grown on the land, and poop out some of
the most fertile substances known to humans. The manure is composted and fertilizes
the crops in a cycle. This is how our food grows. Sure, I’d heard this
before, but somehow, this time it struck a nerve.
Yes, the cow’s milk is sold. And I hope that eventually we can work toward
not using cows at all, except perhaps as donating their poop to help our food
The dirty little secret many organic produce nibbling vegans aren’t fully
aware of is that a large majority of organic farms actually use animal poop,
blood and body parts to fertilize their crops—oftentimes the byproducts
of the factory farms we abhor.
Veganic farming is a budding technique that we should all embrace, which uses
no animal products whatsoever. Ron Khosla, interviewed in this issue, is a pioneer
of this cruelty-free organic with his Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, New
Until veganic becomes more widely available, I’d rather the poop of free
roaming cows, grazing on the grasses nature intended them to eat, fertilize my
food than either the excrement and body parts of factory farmed chickens or the
cancer-causing chemical fertilizers that pollute our soil, waterways, air, and
Schneider illustrated how very out of touch I am with one of the most important
things in the world: my food. As a farmer, he works within a living, sustainable
cycle. In short, he says, “Eat your landscape.” It reminded me of
the French concept of terroir, literally tasting the soil, region, weather, and
sunlight in a glass of wine.
Can you say your food does that for you?
If Your Food had a Fuel Gauge
As a New Yorker, with the exception of an occasional fistful of homegrown basil,
all of my food is transported here from somewhere else, trucked from surrounding
areas and shipped or flown in from afar. The bottom line: every bite I eat drips
with oil, specifically diesel. Every year millions of trucks, planes and ships,
deliver our food while belching out particulates that cause life-threatening
breathing problems, heart failure and cancer.
At the northern tip of Manhattan, nestled near the George Washington Bridge,
is one of the largest bus depots in the city. The predominantly low-income communities
of color surrounding the area breathe in the particulate matter from the buses,
as well as the millions of vehicles crossing the bridge, every day. At Eco Metropolis,
environmental justice activist Peggy Shepard reminded us of the toll fossil fuel
pollution takes on people’s health, in the form of unusually high asthma
rates of young children and adults in West Harlem and the South Bronx.
Environmental activist-turned entrepreneur Brent Baker, of Tri-State Biodiesel,
is offering a local solution to the problem. He’s starting a refinery in
downtown Brooklyn that will produce 2.5 million gallons of biodiesel. After all,
diesel engines were originally designed to run on peanut oil; biodiesel is refined
cooking oil. With 10,000 restaurants in the five boroughs, there’s an endless
supply of…oil—right in our backyard! Baker already has 600 restaurants
signed up to have their used cooking oil hauled away. Biodiesel is 75 percent
cleaner than fossil fuel and 90 percent less toxic.
Contrary to what many might assume, the individual private biodiesel consumer
is a small minority. Brent Baker has his sights set on the heating oil and government
fleet markets. Can you imagine? City apartments and bus fleets powered by cooking
oil? Rather than the gray, smoggy, oil-riddled air of Manhattan we choke down
today, we could be filling our lungs with clean air (albeit with a slight french
fry scent). How cool is that?
Does your Food have a Face and a Place?
Where does your food come from? Seriously. Where do the vegetables, beans, grains
and fruits that make up our vegetarian diet actually come from? From small organic
farmers in upstate New York or New Jersey, industrial Californian farms, far-away
South America or Israel?
As an urbanite, I don’t reside very close to farms, but they are closer
than you would imagine. Michael Ableman is an organic farmer and photographer
whose project exploring our sustainable food growers is expressed in his colorful
new book, Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and
the People Who Grow It (Chronicle Books). At Eco Metropolis, Ableman showed slide
after slide of urban farmers: cleared lots where communities band together to
grow their own produce; a huge rooftop organic garden in the heart of downtown
Another presenter, the visionary John Todd, showed slides of a zero waste community
in England, ZedBed, that incorporates farming into an apartment dwelling complex—growing
food inside the apartments as part of the design!
Ableman and Todd showed me that city dwellers are finding creative ways to grow
their own food right in their own backyard. And I was confronted with discovering,
not only where my current food sources are, but finding one good reason why I
can’t grow some of my own food, right here in New York. At least I’d
know exactly where it comes from.