Straight Talk with Myra Goodman:
Food, the Environment and
the Benefits of Big Organic

April 28th, 2014

SFTE_coverStraight from the Earth is a cookbook that belongs on the kitchen counter, not the coffee table. Written by the co-founder of Earthbound Farm, Myra Goodman, and her daughter, Marea Goodman, this is a vegan cookbook (written by two omnivores) and perfect for anyone who wants to cook bright, seasonal, vegetable-centric food. Myra Goodman joined Meatless Monday to talk about her new book, why local isn’t always better, and to help everyone understand the difference between organic farming and conventional farming. (Hint: organic is better.)

MEATLESS MONDAY: First, congratulations on Straight From The Earth. It’s such an inviting book. It feels like you and your family are in the kitchen with me. I made your mother’s Green Soup.

MYRA GOODMAN: I’m so glad you tried our Grandma’s Green Soup recipe!  It’s the soup my mom would make for my kids when they were young and she babysat. She loved feeding them the healthiest food possible, and this soup uses ten different nutritious vegetables. I was always thrilled that my kids loved it so much. This is my third cookbook, and I realize so much of what I love about sharing my recipes is how intimate it is. How else would you have tasted the soup my kids grew up on? Sharing recipes is also powerful. You’re meeting people when they are cooking, when they are making choices about what food they are going to buy, and how they are going to prepare it.

MM: You wrote Straight From The Earth with your daughter Marea. For a family of omnivores, you certainly know how to cook an incredible range of vegetable-based meals.

MG: I never thought I would write a vegan cookbook, even though I knew it was good for both the planet and our health to eat more plant based foods and less animal products. The idea came together when my daughter Marea was in college at UC Berkeley and living in a co-op where many of the residents were vegan. She signed up to cook the dinner shift for 60 people every Sunday, and started creating these fabulous vegan menus. We’re omnivores, but the food was so delicious, we thought we could inspire more people to eat more plant based foods. Marea and I feel so lucky to have created this cookbook together. It will always be a very special book for our family.

MyraMareasqMM: Each page is incredibly colorful, a lot of fresh ingredients and bright flavors. But more than that, Straight From The Earth also educates. From encouraging readers to use ingredients they may not be familiar with, to reminders like saving food scraps to make your Easy Vegetable Stock recipe, the point is, people can cook great meals and be mindful of the environment.

MG: Exactly! When I was writing my second cookbook, The Earthbound Cook, I really came to understand that eating lower on the food chain is not only one of the most impactful things we can do as eaters to protect the planet, it’s also something we can do right away. Tonight I can make a 100% plant-based dinner, so Straight From The Earth is the next step in my eco-sharing mission.

MM: That’s similar to our mission at Meatless Monday: just make one small change today.

MG: So true! We can’t all go out today and trade in our car for a Prius. And we can’t all go out today and install solar panels on our roof. But we can make real choices about what we eat. That’s why movements like Meatless Monday work. People can make these choices today. People can quickly cut their consumption of meat.

MM: For readers who aren’t familiar with your first cookbook, Food to Live By was written to help people understand the benefits of organic produce.

MG: Food to Live By was my first cookbook. It’s not vegetarian, but it has 270 really delicious recipes from my home kitchen and Earthbound Farm’s farm stand. In it I tell the Earthbound Farm story, and explain the benefits of organic farming and the importance of choosing organic products. It was published in 2006, and years later I would meet people that told me because of this book they started buying organic regularly. They said before the book, they never understood why it made such a big difference. A cookbook can have a big impact.

MM: As you mentioned, your second book, The Earthbound Cook, focuses on the environment and how to make smarter consumer choices at home.

MG: Yes, The Earthbound Cook is a big book with 250 recipes, but it’s also a handbook on how to make your kitchen more eco-friendly. It covers tons of topics like the environmental impact of different food choices, how to save water and energy, and the benefits of buying post-recyclable paper products. For example, the seafood chapter includes information about sustainable seafood, and why it’s important to know what to choose. The book is packed with information, as well as delicious recipes and tempting photos.

MM: There is still a lot of confusion in the marketplace about organic vs. conventional. What is the essential difference? I’d love to share this information with our readers.

MyraGoodman - Version 2MG: Most conventional farming is completely dependent on petroleum-based, synthetically produced fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Over time, conventional soil quality deteriorates and pests become more resistant to pesticides, so more chemicals are needed to farm successfully. In many ways, organic farming is the opposite model. Organic is all about building healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem to support healthy plants that are naturally strong, and more resistant to pests and diseases. We rotate our crops to avoid insects, diseases, and maintain our fertility, and we bring in natural predator insects to eat the pests. Weeding is done by tractors and by hand, not with toxic herbicides

MM: And the USDA has strict guidelines on which pesticides an organic farm may or may not use. Can you clarify?

MG: Basically, the pesticides that are allowed in organic farming are not toxic and persistent. Organic farming uses mostly natural pesticides that have been researched to not harm people or the environment. And there are specific guidelines as to when to use them, as a last resort, after natural methods of crop rotation and other methods of pest management aren’t working. There are some studies that have shown an association between I.Q. and ADHD in children that have been exposed to organophosphate pesticides when in utero. And what’s really concerning is that most of these pesticides are tested for safety in acute exposure, not long-term cumulative exposure, and not in combination with one another. To me, it’s very intuitive and obvious: chemicals that are meant to kill weeds and insects–chemicals that are meant to destroy living organisms–cannot be healthy for our environment or to ingest in our food.

MM: Take us back 30 years when Earthbound Farm was formed. You and your husband were true pioneers. In 1984, was there even a category called “organic?”

MG: We did use the word ‘organic’ but there wasn’t a lot of information available for the general public to question the safety of chemicals. This country was still in the mindset of the Green Revolution that believed these chemicals were going to increase yields and feed the world. Farming organically was looked at as being fringe and hippie, and, to be honest, not taken seriously by most people. There wasn’t even a national organic standard when we started; that didn’t happen until 2002. In 1986, we were the first company to successfully package salad for retail sales. Our baby greens got very popular for being gourmet, beautiful, convenient and healthy, so Earthbound Farm grew very quickly long before there was a strong demand for organic produce.

MM: Earthbound Farm deserves a lot of credit for getting Americans to think about their food choices. Organic products are more popular than ever, more people are self-identifying as vegetarian, there is increased interest in movements like Meatless Monday. Are your sales figures reflecting these changes?

MG: Yes, our sales are increasing, and we are seeing a lot of consumer demand. Just like Meatless Monday goes right to the consumers and asks them to make a choice, I think the organic trend has really been a consumer driven trend. Recently, one of the things we’re seeing is a healthy rise in interest in the dark leafy greens, especially kale. People are buying kale to put in smoothies, to cook as either a side dish or as part of their main entrée. They’re adding it to salads with other healthy greens like spinach. Our consumers are really getting the message that these greens are healthy and there are so many ways to use them, and they are buying a lot more of them.

mark in fieldMM: You gave TEDx Manhattan talk recently called In Praise of Big Organic. Your message was: let’s support organic farms of every size to help improve the health of our food supply and environment as quickly as possible.

MG: Part of my motivation for the TEDx talk was to dispel some negative misconceptions about large organic farms. Some food activists believe that organic is getting too big, and that “big” is almost always “bad”. They believe that the most important thing is supporting small local farms  and getting away from the industrial food supply chain. And while a thriving local economy is tremendously important and we all want local farms to succeed, it’s also extremely important to encourage those local farmers to adopt organic farming methods.

MM: And that is the difference in your opinion, whether a local farm is organic or not?

MG: I think “local organic produce” is the most terrific thing. But “local” doesn’t mean “organic.” People who visit a farmers’ market may assume that all small farms are ecological, and all big farms aren’t sustainable. But if your local farm is a conventional farm, they are likely using the same arsenal of chemicals as large conventional growers. If you’re getting local food that’s been farmed with pesticides, then these pesticides have been applied close by your home, or maybe near where your kids go to school. Buying local can have a lot of advantages in terms of variety and taste and freshness, but you will still be exposed to conventional agricultural chemicals. So I think that that’s an important distinction people need to make.

MM: So, in descending order, consumers should look first for local organic, then organic, then local.

MG:  I think supporting local organic farmers, and encouraging our local conventional farmers to go organic, is very important. And since the majority of food in this country still gets purchased in supermarkets, what Earthbound Farm is doing is giving consumers who shop in supermarkets and club stores an organic alternative to conventionally produced food. So I believe its important to support all organic farmers. We need to realize that every acre that’s transitioned to organic is another acre that isn’t using chemicals that are toxic to people and the planet. Less than 1% of the farmland in this country is organic, so the conversation really shouldn’t be about what’s better, big or small organic. We don’t want organic to be an exclusive club. We want as many farmers as possible converting their acreage to organic as soon as possible!


Four Recipes From Straight From The Earth:

Teriyaki Tofu Broccolette on Wild Rice

Blackberry Bran Muffins

Cabbage and Carrot Crunch Salad

Thai Fresh Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce