Flash in the Pan 

Slippery Silk Road

Even as demand for organic food continues to explode, organic farmers in America are getting thrown under the beet cart they helped build. The Chinese are taking over market share, especially of vegetables and soy, thanks to several American-based multinational food corporations that have hijacked the organic bandwagon they only recently jumped onto.

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A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report titled "Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry" discusses two notable trends in American food: Conventional food corporations are taking over successful independent organic companies, and these organic mega-corporations are becoming increasingly dependent on imported ingredients.

When Dean Foods acquired White Wave, maker of Silk brand soymilk—which I used to drink like it was liquid crack—the prospects looked good for American organic soy farmers. Silk had always been committed to supporting domestic organic farmers, and with the might of Dean Foods behind it, Silk would likely grow.

Silk did grow, but soon dropped its commitment to domestic soy. Soon after, Silk bailed on its commitment to organic soy.

After the sale of White Wave to Dean Foods, multiple Midwestern farmers and farmer cooperatives in the heart of American soy country were told by Silk they had to match the rock-bottom cost of Chinese organic soybeans—a price they simply could not meet. Organic agriculture is labor-intensive, and China has a big edge in the cheap labor department.

"Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production," says Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, based in Michigan. "But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture."

Silk bought Chinese soybeans for years, building a commanding share of the soymilk market, before substantially decreasing its use of organic ingredients.

Few Silk products are certified organic anymore, and some are processed with hexane, a neurotoxin. The use of hexane poses risks to workers in the food processing plants and, some fear, consumers, and is listed as an air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the state of Illinois alone, five million pounds of hexane are released into the environment annually by food processors including Bunge, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. While the green "USDA Organic" seal may be missing in action, hexane-processed soymilk can still be labeled "natural," and if the product contains organic ingredients, the label "made with organic ingredients" is still used.

While the retail price of imported produce remains the same as what consumers were paying for domestic organic, there's reason to believe the quality is lower. At Whole Foods, labels reading "USDA inspected" are stuck to produce imported from abroad, but according to a recent study by Wisconsin's Cornucopia Institute, the USDA's record with food imported from China is fraught with irregularities.

"The [USDA] found multiple noncompliances of the federal organic standards, [including] the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification. This raises serious concerns about whether foods grown organically in China follow the same USDA organic standards with which we require American farmers to comply."

A stand at my local farmers' market has a sign that says "Boycott Chinese Garlic." China currently supplies 75 percent of the garlic sold in the United States, for an average price of 50 cents a pound. Two years ago it was 25 cents a pound. Even with the price of garlic up, large garlic growers, and whole garlic-growing regions like Gilroy, Calif., are hurting. Gilroy used to be known as the nation's garlic capital. In addition to garlic cultivation, a retail empire was built on value-added products made with garlic. Now Gilroy is just a garlic processing capital. Most of its supply comes from China.

One advantage local garlic producers have going for them is that most Chinese garlic is the soft-neck variety, which is inferior—in terms of flavor, clove size and peelability—to the hard-neck varieties favored by many American garlic growers. But while farmers' markets are spreading like weeds and creating ever more opportunities for consumers to buy the good stuff directly from growers, most Americans continue to reach for the netted bulbs of garlic at the supermarket, or jars of pre-peeled and pre-chopped garlic.

Consumers buy organic for several reasons, including lighter environmental impact, cleaner and safer working conditions for farm workers, and the perceived health benefits of organic foods—or at least their lack of toxic health detriments. Unfortunately, the import-fueled corporatization of questionably organic food is making all of these attributes less certain. Silk's road to China is a well-worn trail, and further evidence that organic as we knew it is dead, replaced by gigantic corporations that are in it for all the wrong reasons. And these corporations, more than the Chinese, are who killed organic.

Ask Ari: Hint of garlic

Q: Dear Flash,

This farmer guy at the market has been trying to sell bunches of green squiggly things. He says they're garlic flowers, but he doesn't speak good English, and I can't figure out what to do with them. He just says, "Cook with meat." Well, no duh. My mom's boyfriend says you're supposed to cook them like asparagus. The question is: How do you cook asparagus, and will garlic flowers make my pee neon-yellow like asparagus does?

—Maybe Got Garlic

A: Those green squiggly things sound like garlic flowers, which are green shoots that usually coil, at least once and often twice, before tapering off in an arrow-shaped head.

They're produced by hard-neck garlic, which I find superior to soft-neck. Hard-neck tastes better and its shell peels off in a single piece, while soft-neck is littered with tiny runt cloves and annoying paper that sticks to your fingers. Hard-neck garlic farmers get the added bonus of an early crop of delicious garlic flowers, which are also known as "scapes."

They won't make your pee bright yellow, MGG, but they are slender like asparagus, and often steamed or grilled whole, not chopped into bits. While some people like to cook them whole for presentation, I prefer to chop them and use them like garlic.

Cooking with meat, as your farmer says, is indeed a great way to cook 'em. I'll never forget a stir-fry of garlic flowers and pork in some dark sauce—think soy or oyster—that I ate in a railway dining car in China. I like to recreate this dish with bacon. Just fry some pieces of chopped bacon, adding safflower oil if the bacon's not fatty enough. As soon as the bacon starts to release grease, add coarsely chopped garlic flowers and pour a shot or three of sherry (or water and/or lime) and put the lid on. Let it steam/fry, stirring occasionally, until it's cooked, adding more shots of liquid if necessary. Season with soy or oyster sauce while it's still piping hot.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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