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Grassfed vs. pasture-raised June 25, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Savvy consumers know that many of the marketing claims on food packaging are misleading, if not downright false. “Organic” doesn’t mean, for example, that your vegetables are pesticide-free or that your meat is from animals raised outdoors. “Natural” doesn’t have anything to do with how the animal providing your meat lived, but merely with how the meat is processed after it died. “Humanely-raised” doesn’t even mean that your meat comes from an animal that’s raised humanely, as the Humane Society’s lawsuit against Purdue for using exactly that label on their chicken demonstrates.

But one of the terms that I’ve always thought of as reliable is “grassfed.” Only applicable to ruminants, who can derive all their nutrition from grasses, you see it on beef or dairy products. And although, like many marketing terms, it’s not monitored by the USDA and therefore isn’t verified by anyone checking out the farms that use it (unless those farms voluntarily subscribe to an independent certification program) I’ve trusted that most farms that use the term are doing so in good faith.

But there is a catch, which I discussed with Patricia Whisnant, the head of the American Grassfed Association. Theoretically, it would be possible for a farmer or rancher to feed his cattle grass – even to feed them entirely on grass and nothing else – and still confine them in feedlots. After all, the term “grassfed” technically refers to what the animals eat, not to how they are raised. The logical inference that a consumer would make – that if animals are fed grass, they must be out on pasture eating it – doesn’t necessarily hold.

But if a farmer is going to feed his cattle grass, wouldn’t it make sense for him to let them harvest their own grass by grazing instead of going to the trouble to confine them, harveste the grass separately with his own labor, then feed it to them? Not necessarily. The thing is, grazing cattle expend more energy than feedlot cattle, because they’re walking around more. So a farmer could fatten his cows faster (and thereby make more money) by keeping them confined than by letting them graze – even if what they’re fed is 100% grass.

Are farmers actually perverting the term “grassfed” by applying it to feedlot cattle? Whisnant doubts that it’s happening on any large scale, but acknowledges that the term is open to abuse. In light of that possibility, I’d plump for terms like “pasture-raised” as an alternative or addition to “grassfed” to guarantee to the consumer that animals are being raised in their natural environment.

Of course, the best way to get such a guarantee is to get to know your farmer and visit your farm. When that’s not feasible, though, I prefer to buy products that are certified by third parties I trust, like Animal Welfare Approved, or from companies that tell their story in more detail, like Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, PA. The blurb on their yogurt cartons says it all:

With our herd of Jersey and Guernsey cows, we strive to create the ideal Biodynamic farm – a self-sufficient system that builds and sustains soil fertility through crop rotation and farm composts. The cows graze from early spring through late fall, coming in only for milking. When necessary to meet demand, we purchase additional milk from neighboring Biodynamic and organic farms. These farms treat their land and animals as we do, with sound Biodynamic and organic practices and plenty of loving care.

I’d be willing to bet that if I made a trip out to Phoenixville, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Happy hens = sad pig farmers June 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Hens crammed into battery cages. If there’s one stock image that animal welfare agencies have battered into our brains to convince us that conventional animal farming is bad, that’s the one. A bunch of featherless birds sticking their necks through wire netting, clambering over one another in their rows upon rows of cages stacked higher than you can reach.

That image might not hold true for hens in the US forever, based on a rather surprising – shocking, even – turn of events. The egg industry and animal welfare activists, longtime foes, have come together to agree on a new way to raise hens. (Democrats and Republicans, take note.) The United Egg Producers, an industry association representing over eighty percent of US egg production, and the Humane Society of the US have agreed to replace battery cages with bigger cages designed not only to give the hens more room, but to “enrich” (that’s the technical term) their lives with amenities like perches and nest boxes.

Even more extraordinarily, these two groups are trying to get their agreement set in stone as federal law. In a bill before Congress which had been part of the 2012 Farm Bill until it got axed yesterday, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments mandate that all egg producers – not just the majority represented by the United Egg Producers – follow the new guidelines. Although the egg bill can no longer ride on the coat-tails of the Farm Bill, I’m guessing it’ll be reintroduced in some other form presently.

The twists and turns don’t stop there. The National Pork Producers Council, of all things (another industry association) has gotten into the fray by coming out publicly against the egg bill. Why would a bunch of pig farmers care about how hens are raised, you might ask? Turns out they don’t like the precedent it sets. Per the pork guys, this legislation marks the first time the federal government would get involved in setting production standards for farming. Given the current brouhaha over sow gestation crates, I guess they have reason to be worried.

I think the pork guys are being a little dramatic when they say the egg bill sets a historic precedent for meddling in farmers’ lives. Federal organic standards, after all, require that dairy farmers pasture their cows for a minimum number of days per year. When I first heard about the egg bill, my reaction was to say to myself “About time.”

Upon reflection, though, perhaps the pig farmers have a point. It does seem a bit odd for the US government to take a stand on how many inches of space a hen should have. The vast majority of congresspeople can’t possible have a clue how much space hens need; what they’re supposed to be experts on is how to run a country, not how to run a farm. Would a better solution be to legalize the principle that food animals must be raised humanely and let the courts work out the inevitable battles about how to make that a reality? What do you think?

Eating antibiotics April 30, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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With all the hullabaloo recently over the FDA’s attempts to regulate the administration of antibiotics to livestock (which resulted in the agency encouraging producers to voluntarily reduce their antibiotic use) I thought I’d give my take on it.

First, an all-or-nothing approach to antibiotic use isn’t good for animals, so I don’t support it. One of the problems with organic regulations is that they ban antibiotic use entirely, which means that if a farmer wants to sell an animal’s meat as organic, he can’t give that animal antibiotics even if the animal is sick and needs them. That creates a perverse incentive for organic farmers to let their animals suffer.

But in general, yes, antibiotics are used when they’re not needed – specifically, to speed up growth so that animals reach market weight faster. (Scientists are still researching why this works, but it does.) And they’re used to ward off diseases that wouldn’t pose such a risk to animals if they weren’t crowded into the CAFOs that characterize modern conventional agriculture. For example, antibiotics are prescribed for pigs to prevent Swine Respiratory Disease (SRD). But pigs wouldn’t be so susceptible to SRD, various forms of which make them literally cough until they die (SRD is the leading cause of pig mortality in the US), if they weren’t packed like sardines into barns reeking of ammonia.

So I’m most emphatically for limiting the administration of antibiotics to livestock, if it would compel farmers to improve their living conditions. However, removing the crutch of antibiotics without changing the rest of the system would be a disaster – for farmers and animals alike.

The trials and tribulations of a 100% grassfed butter company June 4, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week see my article on Pastureland dairy at Simple, Good, and Tasty for a look at why a butter maker with unflagging local support almost went out of business due to the vagaries of the skim milk market.

Can organics feed the world? May 11, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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Robert Paarlberg pointedly decries the Luddite sympathies of elite Western foodies in a recent piece in Foreign Policy. In “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers,” Paarlberg argues that today’s trendy push to make food sustainable, which he defines as “organic, local, and slow,” hampers our ability to solve a more important food problem: world hunger. Defenders of sustainability, swayed by romantic visions of pre-industrial agriculture, want to take us back to the days before artificial fertilizer and genetically-engineered seeds. If successful, they will prevent the developing world from taking advantage of the huge productivity gains that those tools bestowed on the West, thereby ensuring a future as dogged by hunger as its past.

Paarlberg makes several good points, including that farmers in the developing world need access to improved infrastructure (like better roads to bring products to market) and that they would benefit from food-safety improvements such as reliable refrigeration and packaging. Of course, none of these points would be denied by any advocate of sustainable food, so Paarlberg is attacking a bit of a strawman here. I’d like to focus on one of his more controversial views, which centers on the “organic” part of sustainability. Paarlberg states that organic farming is not friendlier to the environment than conventional farming; that, in fact, it’s worse for the environment because it requires the use of more land to grow the same amount of food. If we force organic practices down the throats of developing nations, then, we aren’t relieving their hunger, and we’re actually speeding up the degradation of their natural resources.

Paarlberg cites two reasons for rejecting organic farming. The first is that without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is not allowed under organic standards, developing countries would need a lot more animal manure, which means they’d have to do a lot more land- and resource-intensive animal grazing. Oddly, to support this argument Paarlberg uses statistics from the US:

Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture.

This is neither true of the US nor applicable to the developing world. Not true of the US because cattle are not the only source of manure. Currently, excess manure produced by conventional livestock production (especially swine production) results in both miles of manure lagoons and toxic overapplication of manure in areas adjacent to livestock facilities. Redistributing this manure to crops that are currently artificially fertilized would greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but fertilizer is so cheap relative to the cost of transporting manure that doing so is not financially sound. (Pricing the environmental externalities of artificial fertilizer into its cost would address this problem.) Nor is Paarlberg’s point applicable to the developing world. Meat consumption in the developing world is forecast to rise dramatically through 2050 simply due to increased demand as populations become richer, not because of the need for natural fertilizer.* Nonetheless, with more abundant meat comes, inevitably, more abundant shit. One might argue that meat consumption won’t rise without a prior rise in conventional, non-organic, crop production to feed the engine of intensive animal agriculture, but there is an alternative: the development of farms which raise both plants and animals in a self-sustaining balance (more on that below).

Paarlberg’s second argument against organic methods is an oft-repeated one: that organic crop yields are lower than conventional yields, so farming organically requires more land to produce the same amount of food. In his words, “Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.” Implication: organic techniques in the developing world would require massive deforestation there.

Even proponents of organic, such as the folks at the Organic Center, agree that organic crop yields are generally lower than conventional yields. However, it’s important to realize that most organic agriculture still makes use of low-performing monocultures. All the organic lettuce we Whole Foods shoppers get from Earthbound Farm comes from land that is dedicated purely to lettuce production, and producing monocultures this way results in soil that is lower-yielding. Superior yields have been produced by farmers who reject monoculture crops in favor of so-called “stacked” production methods that rotate plant and animal species frequently, but since these efforts are so new and small in scale the evidence remains purely anecdotal. In sum, we shouldn’t write off organics because they are often grown in monocultures with comparatively low yields; we should continue to explore higher-yielding ways of producing organically.

In any case, even though organic yields in the West are typically lower than conventional yields there, they are still far higher than conventional yields in the developing world. Michael Pollan, that foodie guru, cites a University of Michigan study in his New York Times essay Farmer in Chief demonstrating that adoption of modern organic practices in the developing world could increase food production by as much as 50%. It would seem that feeding the world and sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals.

Having said all this, I’m not insisting that organics are the way to go. The moderate in me says that there are almost certainly cases in which a judicious use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is part of an optimal food production system. But we do need to get a lot closer to the organic ideal. Paarlsberg misses his mark in dismissing that project as no more than misguided foodie elitism.

*UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, p.10.

Organic milk actually becomes organic March 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out my article on some *good* news from the USDA: http://simplegoodandtasty.com/2010/03/05/organic-milk-actually-becomes-organic

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle February 18, 2010

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Barbara Kingsolver has created a paean to fresh, local food with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I harbor some serious misgivings about the locavore movement (see February 5′s post) but Kingsolver’s loving descriptions of the vegetables and birds she and her family coax through life and death inspired a yearning for fresh, homegrown food in even this grouchy urbanite. If food delights you – not just in the eating, but in the seeing and smelling and preparing – you will revel in this book, not for its arguments in favor of locavorism, but for its mouthwatering portrayal of what a year of local, seasonal food in southern Appalachia is like.

That’s really what the bulk of AVM is devoted to, in all its fascinating detail: untangling the mysteries of turkey hatching, celebrating the first vegetable of spring (the reedy asparagus), struggling to prevent boisterous zucchini from overtaking your summer kitchen. It’s lovely, all of it. And if Kingsolver stopped at the pure celebration of all this wonderful food, I would have no bone to pick with her book. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. She insists that we should all participate in the creation of what we eat as she does: by growing it (or at least purchasing it from local growers) and by making it from scratch in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t identify what type of imperative this is, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, it’s clear that she thinks that a life spent in intimate communion with food is, in some deep sense, superior to one that’s not.

Kingsolver isn’t the first or the only food writer to make this point; Michael Pollan enjoins us to tend gardens and Mark Bittman wants us to spend more time in the kitchen. But this review is about Kingsolver’s book, so I’ll pick on her. The injunction that we should all devote more time to communing with food seems to have something to do with how central it is to our survival, but no one suggests that we all need to be experts on construction because shelter is central to our survival. It’s ridiculous to think that we would somehow be better people if we all took part in building our own homes, so why do we become better people if we all take part in building our own meals? Why not leave it to the experts, if we don’t happen to enjoy it?

That’s another thing: Kingsolver seems to be incredulous that someone could garden or cook and actually discover that they don’t like it. She agrees that women’s liberation means that “…we’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food was cooked and eaten, these were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater.” I have to say that for yours truly, no chore, not even dusting, is more stupefying than chopping veggies. Does that make me hopelessly out of touch with the meaning of life?

Not only is it possible to dislike preparing food, it’s also possible to be bad at it. That otherwise unassailable people can turn to be bad cooks or bad gardeners brings up a third failing of Kingsolver and her peers: in their haste to erect a democracy of food preparation, they don’t give themselves enough credit for having something not everyone has: talent. There is such a thing as a green thumb, and why must you force yourself on unsuspecting lettuces if you don’t have it?

There are some other inconsistencies in AVM which are common to the local/seasonal food movement. Kingsolver attacks us for our lack of restraint in eating foods regardless of seasonality; we tell our teens, she says, to wait before having sex, but these are “…words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now.” Yet her own approach to winter is to can 60-plus jars of tomato sauce so that her family can, well, enjoy tomatoes out of season. She touts the idea of a native food culture, yet offers recipes from cuisines that originated in places as diverse as Asia, South America, and Europe. She champions using local ingredients, and this is probably the ideal she most consistently upholds. But if her reason for doing so is to save on all the energy used in transport, which she alludes to a couple of times, she must respond to the critique of the locavore movement that points out that transport is one of the food chain’s smallest gas guzzlers. The energy used for fertilizers and for kitchen food preparation each dwarf it. Kingsolver devotes exactly one paragraph of this 350-page book to acknowledge these issues, and in it chooses to pooh-pooh them rather than discuss them.

Read AVM to relish the miracles that daily spring out of the ground to feed us. Just don’t be lulled into believing that you’ve found more than that.

What to buy: dairy and eggs January 1, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Links.
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A short post this week, directing all you conscientious consumers to a great online resource for ethical dairy purchases. The Cornucopia Institute rates over a hundred organic dairy brands based on how truly they uphold the organic ideal, which means going above and beyond the USDA’s official organic guidelines. The ratings are based on factors including farm ownership (family farms win out) and whether supplies are procured off-farm, factors which don’t directly relate to animal welfare. However, the ratings also consider the brand’s pasturing practices, antibiotic and hormone use, and cull levels, which are straightforward indications of humane treatment. Based on my anecdotal knowledge of a few brands on the list – for example, that Organic Valley’s animal welfare standards are way higher than Horizon’s or Aurora’s and that smaller brands Cedar Summit, Castle Rock, Pastureland and Seven Stars are highly solicitous of their cows – the ratings seem to provide quite a good proxy for animal welfare. Take a look in your fridge and see how your brands fare: http://www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/Ratings_Alphabetical.html

I also found one of the better explanations of the plethora of egg labels out there on the Humane Society of the US’s website: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html

These sites are now also listed on my links page. Happy New Year!

Torn over Organic Valley December 18, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Peter Singer doesn’t drink milk, but he does recognize that some milk producers treat their cows more humanely than others. Since reading his evaluation of various organic milk producers in The Way We Eat, I’ve felt pretty good about drinking Organic Valley. Unlike competitors Aurora and Horizon, Organic Valley (OV) requires its farmers to provide cows access to pasture during the growing season, and stipulates that any indoor housing used at other times of the year be more comfortable than the bare concrete commonly used in indoor confinement systems. By no means does this make OV a paragon of virtue – their minimum requirement for time spent grazing pasture is four months of the growing season, so in theory you could have cows that are kept inside for eight months of the year – but the standards are a hell of a lot better than Aurora’s or Horizon’s, which allow cattle to be kept in close confinement in traditional feedlots for their entire lives. (These feedlots are often outdoor pens with dirt floors, which allows Aurora to legally claim that their cattle are outside year-round, conveniently inspiring all sorts of bucolic images of frolicking cows in the minds of their consumers.)

However, OV’s support for Aurora in a consumer class-action lawsuit against the latter has me thinking twice about OV’s true commitment to be a step above the competition. The background to the lawsuit, in brief, is this: apparently the USDA’s organic standards, which require “access to pasture” but specify no minimum amount of time spent on pasture, aren’t weak enough for Aurora. Aurora was allegedly providing no pasture at all (as noted above) as well as mixing cows that had not been raised organically into its organic herds. As a result, it’s being sued for consumer fraud. Now, one would think that OV could gain a little competitive advantage from publicizing this lawsuit, because as far as anyone knows, OV not only adheres to, but exceeds, the USDA’s standards. Sounds like quite a PR opportunity, actually. But instead, OV chose to underwrite a brief to the court in support of Aurora, saying that the lawsuit, if successful, could set a dangerous precedent for future legal action against organic suppliers like itself.

Which makes me think that OV must not be so confident in its own compliance with organic, or better-than-organic, standards. When I sent a note to OV expressing this sentiment, they responded as follows:

“…if successful, it [the class-action suit] possibly means that any organic certificate could be viewed as inadequate and allows anyone to sue farmers, retailers, consumers and other businesses over their interpretation of the “spirit” of organic.  This would truly undermine the validity of the National Organic Standards and any third-party certification process.”

OV does have a point. Opening the door to spurious lawsuits could force OV to dedicate increasing amounts of money and time to courtroom battles, even if their strict adherence to organic standards led them to win every one. So now I’m torn. Organic Valley: corporate hero or apologist?

Book review: Just Food December 10, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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James McWilliams styles Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly as a heroic underdog’s battle against the popular but shallow and misguided eat-local movement. He would love to drink the Kool-Aid and spend his afternoons lolling about the farmers market, he tells us, but his gosh-darned integrity just won’t allow him to sink mindlessly into the morass of locavorism.

Unfortunately his laziness won’t allow him to sustain a compelling argument for an alternative either. He briefly discusses the intriguing alternative of life-cycle assessments, according to which all the energy costs, not just the ones involved in transporting food over long distances, are calculated to determine how environmentally friendly a food is. McWilliams is of course right that it is better to look at all energy costs than only the portion that locavores are concerned with. But without a life-cycle grade on every piece of food we buy (which the government of Sweden is implementing, but is not available elsewhere in the world), how is the consumer supposed to rank the different contributions to energy use that go into food production? Should I buy a fish caught by an ocean trawler – a huge energy sink – if I can save household energy by searing it for only a couple of minutes on the stove, or should I buy dried pinto beans whose production is relatively green, but which require simmering for two and a half hours? McWilliams isn’t offering us any help here; discussing the energy-intensive components of food production, McWilliams says “these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus…” Yes, they leave one wondering because McWilliams hasn’t bothered to do the calculation for us, or even helped us rank these sometimes competing priorities.

The annoying habit of substituting rhetorical questions for tough analysis pops up at other intervals in JF. When discussing – and dismissing – the possibility of scaling up local food production, McWilliams asks “…how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region?” Well, I don’t know McWilliams, how about interviewing regional grocery chains like Lunds that are incorporating local food into their assortment to find out how their distribution chains handle it? Again, when he reviews sustainable, free-range methods of pig farming, he wonders whether all pig farming could be this way, saying that to answer that question, “One could begin by asking if the resources, labor, expert knowledge, patience, and land exist for the world to convert to such forms of pork production while maintaining the same rates of meat consumption. We don’t have the answer to this hypothetical question…” Well, we could at least begin to answer it by multiplying annual pig consumption by the average number of acres required to raise free-range pigs in places that are already doing so. And we could interview free-range pig farmers to find out how much labor they use to manage their pigs. We could, but McWilliams chooses not to.

McWilliams’ analysis is lazy in other ways, too. He cites secondary sources of important research rather than going straight to the original studies, for example when he discusses Charles Benbrooke’s work on GM soybean yields. I’ll admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s a non-trivial concern. Had McWilliams read Benbrooke’s actual report, published five years before his own book, he would have seen that Benbrooke found that herbicide application rates on GM soybeans actually went up after the initial few years of adoption, and not down, as McWilliams states.

Perhaps I’m too harsh of a critic here; McWilliams does have some interesting things to say about aquaculture, for example, and the promise of aquaponics to sustainably provide protein for a ballooning world population. The section on subsidies and how their structure should be changed to level the playing field between environmentally costly and environmentally friendly foods makes a lot of sense, although McWilliams fails to own up to the fact that in this case, leveling the playing field means increasing the prices consumers will pay for currently cheap food. Since its expense is one of the most common challenges thrown to advocates of sustainable eating, it’s a big one to ignore.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to cut McWilliams a break, especially when he has so little faith in his readers. At the end of the first chapter, when he discusses initiatives to reduce the cost of food transport like using bigger trucks, he says to us “And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn.” If he doesn’t credit his readers with the attention span or interest level to delve deeply into these issues, then why write this book for them?

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