Few everyday decisions are more important to our health—or the health of our planet—than choosing what we eat.
NRDC pushes corporations and policymakers to reduce harmful chemicals in our food. We fight for stronger pollution controls on industrial farms and help small farmers safeguard their crops against climate change. We also develop initiatives to reduce food waste and promote sustainability from farm to fork.
Americans are consuming more dangerous chemicals than ever before.
The “Sioux Chef” Shares His Roots (and the Midwest’s, Too)
Sean Sherman wants to show the world another type of North American cuisine: indigenous food.
Cedar tea sweetened with maple sugar. Popcorn seasoned with sumac and smoked salt. Wild rice and braised bison studded with dried squash and toasted seeds. Chef Sean Sherman’s indigenous enterprise serves up these Native American treats on the street corners of Minneapolis from his Tatanka Truck. But the truck’s whiteboard menu has some noticeable omissions: no fry bread or other wheat products. No beef, pork, or chicken, which were introduced to North America by European settlers. No soda, either, or any other processed foods that have contributed to high rates of dietary illnesses among Native Americans. Just regional, indigenous food.
“You don’t have to be from indigenous heritage to appreciate native food,” says Sherman. And judging by its popularity—the Tatanka Truck has won several local culinary awards since opening in 2015—Minneapolis’s lunch crowds seem to agree. But the “Sioux Chef,” as he’s also known, hopes his customers will walk away with more than just full bellies. “I always have to tell people that there’s a long history before Laura Ingalls Wilder here in Minnesota.”
Now, Sherman has bigger plans to make native, healthy, local food accessible to the average eater. His first cookbook on native foods, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, comes out next month. Last summer he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to open a restaurant, and he’s begun scouting for the perfect location. The dining establishment will also serve as an education center and hub from which Sherman will help other native people open satellite restaurants around the country that promote locally sourced, seasonal food.
From the Lakota Tribe, Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Though he’s been cooking for nearly three decades, it wasn’t until 10 years ago, when he was working at a restaurant in Mexico that used local ingredients, that he realized he didn’t know much about the indigenous foods of his own homeland. For him, “the epiphany was really just observing and then talking to the [native] Huichol vendors on the beach, then reading about their histories,” says Sherman. In learning about the preservation and preparation techniques the Huichol people used, and even the key ingredients in their cooking (like squash and beans), he recognized a shared heritage.
When Sherman returned to the States, he started doing some gastronomic research. While he had a good handle on indigenous proteins—“lots of fresh lake fish and deer and bison and rabbit, ducks and geese”―he says “it’s the plants that are the key.”
Luckily, he had a foundation. In high school he had worked as a forest surveyor, so he knew the Latin names of local plants and could pinpoint where they grew. So Sherman set out to educate himself on how tribes farmed and cooked with these native plants, researched botanical and historical texts, worked with ethnobotanists, then experimented with wild foods like ginger, ramps, bergamot, wormwood, and yarrow. Today he collects seeds and sits on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting and preserving heirloom plant varieties. He also advises Dream of Wild Health, a 10-acre Minnesota farm and nonprofit that grows indigenous foods from rare seeds and sells its bounty through community-supported agriculture plans and farmers’ markets.
“Food and flavor are all around us,” he says, and we can cultivate our local flavors sustainably by becoming more aware of what lives and grows nearby. Take wild rice, native to the upper Midwest, for example. The variety that a shopper will typically find in the grocery store is a black, thin grain. But that crop was cultivated only so that mass producers could use existing combines to process it, says Sherman; it isn’t authentic to the area. Meanwhile, indigenous people who harvest the rice in the region say they can taste the difference between rice grown in one lake or another. Having a better understanding of North America’s true foods and flavors, their diversity and value, benefits everyone, says Sherman.
Much of the food we eat today in North America lacks any regional character: burgers and Coca-Cola at every rest stop, the same chain restaurants in every mall. This industrial food system has resulted in widespread diet-related health problems like diabetes. Native Americans are particularly susceptible to this disease, more than twice as likely as white Americans to have the diagnosis, according to a Health and Human Services analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census.
“A lot of that stems from not having any healthy foods,” says Sherman. “We are anxious to try to help.”
As part of his work to promote less-processed and healthier local foods, Sherman highlights the importance of preserving what’s in season (whether apples or mushrooms, plums or purslane) to use throughout the year. He also explains preservation techniques, such as dehydration and powderization, in his new cookbook. (Additionally, he includes recommendations for where to buy some of the ingredients listed.)
Ultimately Sherman would like to create a food map showing the locations of indigenous foods, to encourage people to incorporate the wild edibles that grow around them into their diets. The project, one he’s working on through his newly formed nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS for short), will likely take a number of years to complete, but Sherman’s okay with making it his life’s work.
The indigenous food map may just give a whole new meaning to the locavore movement that prizes local, seasonal foods. And for the bulk of us, who don’t live within lunching distance of Sherman’s Tatanka Truck, it offers an opportunity to get a taste of something like it at home.
Excerpts from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen
Cook up some Native American dishes yourself. Here are a couple to try out from Sherman’s new cookbook.
Simple Corn Cakes with Assorted Toppings
Wagmíza Aǧúyabskuyela Serves 4 to 6
When we were designing the menu for the Tatanka Truck, we wanted something lighthearted, unpretentious, healthy, and fun. So, we re-created the Indian taco with authentic ingredients—the indigenous taco. The base is a griddled corn cake, like a griddled polenta cake, topped with local foods such as walleye, smoked turkey, cedar-braised bison, and roasted squash. This Simple Corn Cake is made of cornmeal, cooled, formed into a patty, cooked on a hot flat surface—flat rocks, a home griddle—just as many Native communities have been doing for centuries.
The variations on these easy, simple cakes are endless. Stir in fresh corn, herbs, dried meat, berries, maple, seeds, nuts, and mushrooms. The base of cooked cornmeal may be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week, ready to shape into cakes for breakfast, lunch, appetizers, and snacks.
3 cups water
Generous pinch salt
1 cup polenta or coarse cornmeal
1 to 2 tablespoons sunflower or nut oil
In a large pot set over high heat, bring the water to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream. Continue stirring to be sure there are no lumps. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and the flavor is rich and corny, about 30 to 40 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Shape the cooked cornmeal into patties, about 4 inches round by an inch thick. Film a skillet with the oil and set over medium-high heat. Sear the patties until nicely browned on one side, about 5 to 10 minutes, then flip and sear the other side, making sure they are cooked through. Place on a baking sheet and keep in a warm oven until ready to serve.
Wóžapi Makes about 4 to 6 cups
The scent of this traditional sauce simmering on the stove takes me back to my freewheeling six-year-old self. Our family relied on the local chokecherries I gathered as a kid. We’d spread a blanket under the trees and gather buckets full. There’s no need to pit them because the pits drop to the bottom of the pot as the sauce becomes thick and lush. We’d sweeten it for a dessert or serve it as a tangy sauce for meat and game and vegetables, and as a dressing.
6 cups fresh local berries—chokecherries or a mix of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, elderberries, cranberries, blackberries
1 to 1½ cups water
Honey or maple syrup to taste
Put the berries and water into a saucepan and set over low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick. Taste and season with honey or maple syrup as desired.
Recipes from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming October 2017). Copyright 2017 Ghost Dancer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press. www.upress.umn.edu
Learn how you can save water, fuel, labor, and money by wasting less food
A victory for Alaska’s forests—but further threats on the state's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, plus more pipelines and ongoing attacks on our national monuments.
In his debut speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump dropped 4,580 words on the heads of state and ministers from nearly every country on earth.
He thought it appropriate to talk about America’s prosperity, military prowess, and pummeling by hurricanes. He called on the world community to stand up to “rogue regimes” like North Korea and Iran, which he called “the scourge of our planet.”
Yet he couldn’t squeeze in a couple of words about an issue that the world has already united on: the true scourge of our planet, climate change.
Indeed, the president failed to discuss the growing dangers from our changing climate or his plans to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement, which leaves―with Nicaragua joining the accord this week—America and Syria as the only two nations refusing to support the world’s most significant global climate action ever.
“Given that he’s abdicated his responsibility, it’s now on the leaders of other nations to rally the will of the people to leave our children a livable world,” Rhea Suh, NRDC’s president, wrote in the New York Daily News. “It’s on our state and local officials, investors, and businesses to press forward with the progress we need. And, more than even that, it’s on us, as American citizens, to demand better of our leaders.”
In other ways, Trump and his team kept up the assault on our health and environment, although there was one important victory for wilderness protection.
On September 20, a federal judge upheld the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which was issued by the Clinton administration’s U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the number of roads built in national forests. It’s an important win because it protects 50 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands for the public and future generations.
“This rule has weathered endless attacks by corporate interests and their allies. But it’s as enduring as the old-growth forest it protects,” said Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska director. “No rule has saved as much federal forestland from destruction. Now it has itself been saved, once again.”
Groups Outline Opposition to Trump Nominee for Clean Air Office
NRDC and allies sent a letter to key senators on September 19 with supporting documentation outlining their strong opposition to the nomination of Bill Wehrum, Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation—enforcers of the Clean Air Act and protectors of clean air.
In 2006, President George W. Bush nominated Wehrum, a lobbyist who has represented coal, oil, gas, and chemical companies, for the same post, but Wehrum withdrew when it became clear the Senate wouldn’t confirm him.
And it shouldn’t this time around, either, NRDC and allies say. “In private practice with corporate law firms,” they wrote, “Mr. Wehrum has represented industrial interests in nearly 35 lawsuits that sought to weaken or void EPA clean air and public health safeguards. Americans deserve better for the nation’s chief clean air official.”
Will FERC Greenlight More Gas Pipelines?
With Trump nominee Neil Chatterjee now at its helm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave a green light this past week to a natural gas pipeline that had been rejected by the state of New York.
FERC has rejected only two pipelines in three decades, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania. But to John Moore, senior attorney for the Sustainable FERC Project at NRDC, the commission appears to break new ground. “Historically, FERC has been careful not to tread over state decisions and state prerogatives,” Moore said, adding a concern that future “close calls” could go more pipeline companies’ way.
Zinke Puts 10 National Monuments at Risk of Being Opened for Mining, Drilling, and Hunting
Back in August, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he’d recommended changes to just a handful of our national monuments in a monument review he sent to the president. Now we know from a leaked memo that Zinke actually targeted 10 to be carved up for private profit.
Zinke’s memo called for downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both in Utah; Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon; and Gold Butte in Nevada—but didn’t say by how much the boundaries should change. He also urged change in the use and/or management of six other monuments: Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks and Rio Grande, both in New Mexico; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument; Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument; and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.
If Trump accepts Zinke’s recommendations, he’ll have a fight on his hands. “We will stand up for the nearly three million people who urged the administration to protect these monuments—in court, if necessary,” NRDC’s Rhea Suh warned.
Trump Moves to Open the Pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Energy Exploitation
The Washington Postreported on September 15 that the Trump administration is moving to try to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in three decades to oil and gas drilling. “This is a really big deal,” said NRDC’s Niel Lawrence. “This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail.”
That’s this week’s Real Lowdown. NRDC has prepared a list of other far-ranging threats. And we’re vigilantly reporting on the administration’s assault on the environment through Trump Watch.
Trump Watch: NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment.
On Friday, California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) made big promises to address the risk from the pesticide chlorpyrifos—found to threaten children’s health, especially in agricultural communities—but delivered little in the way of real protections. The state claimed to be announcing “health protections” but the reality is communities are unlikely to see improvements before January 2019, at the earliest. And, instead of showing California’s leadership in science and innovation, the state’s “updated” risk assessment ignores the findings from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 risk assessment—instead relying on data from back in 2014.
This means that state will allow way more contamination in California’s communities than the level US EPA determined is dangerous to children. US EPA’s 2016 assessment said that regularly breathing levels of chlorpyrifos higher than 2.1 ng/m3 was dangerous for pregnant women and no use of chlorpyrifos should be allowed that would result in these elevated exposures. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) wants to allow thousands of times more chlorpyrifos in the air—saying only levels above 61,500 ng/m3 are risky.
Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists. With the federal EPA making decisions that benefit chemical companies over children, California’s agricultural communities and farmworkers have been looking to Governor Brown to step-in and deliver the protections denied them by the new administration.
It’s especially critical here because California is the nation’s biggest user of chlorpyrifos (using on average a little more than 1 million pounds per year) leading to contaminated air, water, food and homes—putting the health of pregnant women, children, and farmworkers at risk. Unfortunately, California’s announcement falls far short of what’s necessary to protect people’s health. For one, despite having the authority to stop the drift of this pesticide into homes and schools, CalEPA is not setting mandatory restrictions which will get chlorpyrifos out of the fields for good.
Instead the promised “interim mitigation measures”, which are to be released next month, are actually “recommendations”—not requirements. That means there’s nothing legally changing whether or how chlorpyrifos is used in the fields—and the current, dangerous practice of applying it right next to homes and schools can continue. It will be left up to each County Agricultural Commissioner to voluntarily decide whether or not to follow any of the state’s new recommendations. That means we can expect patchwork improvements, at best, and there’s the distinct possibility that communities that need it most will get nothing.
Thankfully, Friday’s announcement includes additional scientific review outside the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—which is refusing to address the science that ties low-levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos to permanent damage to the developing brain. Based on this science, US EPA found that chlorpyrifos was contaminating the air in California’s communities and poisoning the food supply. In Friday’s memo, DPR erroneously states that USEPA’s assessment was a “draft” and not finalized. This is just one of a long list of DPR’s errors that the Scientific Review Panel (SRP) must correct to get California back on track. However, for communities with unsafe air, the estimated completion date of the SRP review (which is optimistic) of December next year (2018) is a long time to wait.
CalEPA’s announcement shows that, at long last, California is paying attention (finally!) to residents concerned about this toxic pesticide—but they’ve responded with a false promise of protections for communities that pay a steep price for the fruits, vegetables and nuts Americans eat nationwide. “Recommendations” are not enough when the science supports a ban. CalEPA must make good on the promise of health protections by: (1) setting clear deadlines to keep the scientific review process on track, (2) protecting the most vulnerable—the risk assessment must evaluate risk to the developing brain, (3) providing near term relief to every community through mandatory restrictions and (4) banning chlorpyrifos from California’s fields.
California must do better than this. The health of its children depend on it.
Food waste occurs at all levels of the supply chain. We leave entire fields unharvested, reject produce solely for cosmetic reasons, throw out anything past or even close to its “use by” date, inundate restaurant patrons with massive portions, and let absurd amounts of food rot in the back of our fridges.
Wasting food is not only expensive, it’s also an environmental tragedy because of the enormous loss of natural resources that were used to get food from seed to the table. A staggering amount of climate pollution, cropland, water, fertilizer, labor, and energy goes into producing all that uneaten food, which ultimately adds up to a fifth of everything that’s thrown into landfill.
Today, we’re releasing a second edition of that report which captures the latest studies, success stories, and recommendations across the food system. It provides updated statistics on the environmental, economic and social impacts, analyzes areas of progress at the government, business and consumer levels in the last five years, and offers policy solutions for overcoming the problem.
Among other things, it reveals that, across the food system, America throws out more than 400 pounds of food per person per year. And when that food is wasted, so are the resources that go into producing it, including 21 percent of freshwater used by the U.S. agricultural industry. Wasted food also generates climate change pollution equivalent to 37 million cars per year. If we could redirect just one-third of the food that we now toss to people in need, it would more than cover unmet food needs across the country.
But the updated report also shows that there’s lots to celebrate. In the past five years we have made progress in a number of areas:
POLICY: We’ve seen a range of significant policies passed. In September 2015, both the United Nations and the U.S. federal government embraced goals to cut food waste 50% by 2030. Many states have incentivized food donation to hungry people. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidance to standardize food date labels—which are a major source of consumer confusion and waste.
INDUSTRY: Businesses at all stages of the food system have made commitments to reduce wasted food in their operations, recognizing the benefit to their bottom line. Especially notable, a major consortium of more than 400 retailers and manufacturers committed to cutting their food waste in half by 2025.
CONSUMERS: The largest source of food waste is people in their own homes, who waste more than grocery stores, restaurants or any other single part of the supply chain. Fortunately, a 2016 public opinion poll by the Ad Council revealed that 74% of respondents reported that food waste was important to them. An NRDC public service campaign with the Ad Council, called Save The Food, also launched last year to help raise consumer awareness—and we just released a second phase of the campaign today.
However, there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. For one, data are still limited and it is difficult to assess whether we are actually wasting less food than when our first Wasted report was published in 2012. We need more comprehensive data to better understand how much we’re wasting and how we can improve.
Additionally, further policy changes are needed to prevent food waste—such as food date labelling legislation—and to remove barriers and expand liability protections for food donation. More infrastructure is also needed to expand recycling options for food scraps.
In many instances, improved technological solutions, redesigned products or optimized purchasing standards could reduce inefficiencies that lead to wasted food. Many of these solutions are best practices that can be implemented simply by streamlining standard operating procedures. Because small actions add up to a big problem, it’s also true that small actions can contribute to fixing the problem. Each of us—federal and state legislators, food processors, retailers, restaurant owners, and every single home cook—can take meaningful steps to change our habits and save food, money, water, energy and land from going to waste.
Our second edition of Wasted highlights a path forward.
I bet we’ve all had the experience of standing over the trash can, staring at what was once a tasty-looking snack, entrée or piece of fruit before we forgot about it and let it get scary in the back of our fridge. We’ve kicked ourselves over money spent on food we end up tossing out and pledged to do better the following week.
Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill
In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsible—it’s expensive. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually.
Our original report sparked a national conversation about wastefulness and its consequences. In 2017, we released an update on America’s progress with recommendations for what needs to happen in order to reduce the amount of food we waste. It is time to stop biting off more than we can chew and clean our plates. There is much work to be done, but we are well positioned to undertake it.
This is about more than just food. It’s about resources. Even with the most sustainable practices, our food system uses enormous resources. Including cropland, fresh water, fertilizers, pest control, labor, and energy to transport and regulate temperature. If we never eat the food, those resources are used in vain. Wasted food is also a major contributor to climate change, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than 37 million cars. The majority of those greenhouse gases are released by growing the food, though a portion is released as methane as food rots in landfills. In fact, food is the number one contributor to landfills today.
The agency recently finalized two flawed, industry-friendly rules for evaluating the risks of chemicals on our health and the environment.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is meant to keep us safe by requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the potential hazards that chemicals could pose to our health and the environment. But, with Scott Pruitt at its helm, the agency is once again trying to skirt the law and dole out favors to its industry friends.
At the end of June, the EPA issued a set of rules that would make it easier to ignore chemical risks and disregard harmful exposures. They introduce loopholes that would give the agency the power to pick and choose which uses of a chemical it will assess. Such an incomplete analysis could lead the EPA to conclude that a chemical doesn’t pose a health or environmental risk when it actually does.
What’s more, TSCA requires the EPA to consider all “intended, known, and reasonably foreseeable use.” So NRDC, along with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and Cape Fear River Watch, has filed a lawsuit challenging the new, weakened rules.
“Most people don’t realize how few protections this country has against toxic chemicals,” says Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Health & Environment program. “These rules would make it harder to keep people safe. The EPA’s toxics office is now headed by a former top official for the chemical industry’s lobbying group. So it’s no surprise the agency is creating loopholes for chemical companies. We’re suing to hold the agency to its mission of protecting the public.”
Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault