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McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.

First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat.  Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.

Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.

Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).

Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.

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Standing up for gestation crates April 9, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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McDonald’s and Wendy’s have both recently announced that they’re asking their pork suppliers to draw up plans to phase our gestation crates. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I have to say a positive word about gestation crates.

For the uninitiated, gestation crates are metal cages in which pregnant sows live while they await the birth of their litters. Since it’s to the farmer’s advantage to breed his sows as often as possible, the sows end up spending the majority of their mature lives in these cages, which are typically not large enough for them to turn around, and sometimes don’t even let them lie down without difficulty. Some gestation crates, however, are big enough for sows to recline and turn around; here is a picture of one from Fischer Family Farms in Waseca, Minnesota that allows the farmer to pull the sidebars down so that the sows can turn around.

I’m not in favor of keeping sows in these crates for most of their adult lives, even if the crates are a little bigger. Aside from the obvious movement problems, the crates don’t allow sows to build nests for their litters, which is one of their strongest natural drives. However, the most common alternative to gestation crates is to group-house pregnant sows, which means they’re all in a barn together. Unfortunately, sows are aggressive animals, especially when pregnant, so that leads to a lot of fighting and to the weaker sows being repeatedly attacked and prevented from eating their fair share of the food. Lest you think a little scuffle now and then isn’t a big deal, consider this: dominant sows in line for food will bite the vulvas of the sows in front of them. Doesn’t sound so great.

I discussed this welfare dilemma with Wayne Martin, Swine Welfare Specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension. He had a rather interesting solution: keep the sows in crates for the first three to four weeks of their pregnancies, when hormones are running highest and they are most aggressive. Then keep them in group housing for the remaining three to four months of their pregnancies. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a compromise that the industry and animal welfare groups might consider before going whole hog for a “solution” that could make sows’ lives worse.

Damage control at Sparboe Farms April 1, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I felt no small degree of personal satisfaction at Mercy For Animals’ exposé of egg producer Sparboe Farms last November. Sparboe had already gotten on my bad side by denying me access when I asked to see their facilities for research purposes. I showed up at the doorstep of their headquarters in Litchfield, Minnesota asking to be shown around or at least to talk to someone who could tell me about their operations. I was politely told that they refused to do tours of their barns due to “hygiene concerns” and to call back about interviewing someone. Two phone calls later, a very nice junior assistant got back to me to tell me that Sparboe’s policy was not to talk to the media. When I asked why, she replied that Sparboe didn’t feel that it was in their interest. Now that Mercy For Animals has uncovered the nasty conditions and inhumane treatment of hens there, we know why.

What I’d like to focus on in this post, though, isn’t the mistreatment itself, but the company’s response to its discovery. On the dedicated website Sparboe created to discuss the situation, president Beth Sparboe Schnell has this to say:

…these incidents should never have happened in the first place—but they did and we accept that responsibility.  We were not as vigilant as we should have been in monitoring our farm employees to make sure that they were following our animal care code of conduct.

The first line is a refreshingly straightforward admission of guilt. But the second is a depressingly familiar example of passing the buck in an industry that refuses to acknowledge the depth of its problems. What exactly does Sparboe Schnell say she and the other leaders of her company are culpable of? Placing their trust in a few bad apples who didn’t uphold Sparboe’s real values, apparently. True to that interpretation, Sparboe Schnell notes that since the investigation they’ve fired four employees and one manager.

So Sparboe is not villain, but victim. Victim of its own trusting, empowering culture. Shame on those baddie employees for taking advantage of it.

Give me a break. If Beth Sparboe Schnell didn’t know what was going on in those barns – and that’s giving her the benefit of the doubt – it’s because she didn’t have any interest in finding out. And if the president of the company doesn’t have any interest in something, her employees won’t either. Which means, regardless of what codes of conduct they have posted on the wall, they don’t give a damn about animal welfare.

Kudos to Target, Lunds and Byerly’s, and McDonald’s for dropping Sparboe as a supplier. The only problem is, their other suppliers probably aren’t any better; they just haven’t yet hosted any investigators from Mercy For Animals.

Don’t kill the messenger March 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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I’ve complained more than once on this blog that the agriculture industry’s response to revelations of animal mistreatment is heavy on defensiveness and light on regret. Or shame, or sorrow, or any of the emotions that one might think would well up when farmers realize that one of their own has abused the animals in his care.

Well, it’s time to complain again. Over the past few years the ag industry has tried to push “ag gag” bills through state legislatures that criminalize the undercover investigations that expose cruelty to farm animals. The bills in my old home state of Minnesota and others never made it into law, but there’s one trickling through Utah’s legislature right now that would criminalize filming on a farm without permission – which basically makes it impossible for undercover agents to provide hard evidence for the violations they witness. Worse, according to this report, Iowa actually got an ag gag bill into law that makes presenting false information on a job application for a farm job a serious misdemeanor.  Since undercover investigators obviously can’t be completely truthful on their job applications (try applying for a job at Tyson with “Most recent employer: Mercy for Animals” on your form) that means Iowan producers don’t have to worry that their customers might actually find out how their food is being made.

Let’s say it all together, now: the problem isn’t undercover investigators, the problem is what they’re undercovering.

Meister Cheese’s New Animal Welfare Certification June 30, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out this article, which I wrote for Heavy Table, on the new “A Triple F” humane certification launched by Wisconsin’s Meister Cheese. Interesting not only in itself, but as food for thought about when companies’ and industries’ self-policing can work.

Being a good guy doesn’t always pay June 21, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Livestock farmers often feel under the gun to prove to a wary public that they aren’t all sadistic animal abusers. But they don’t always understand why. Paraphrasing the statements of several farmers I’ve met, their reasoning goes something like this: “I have to treat my animals well. If I didn’t do the right thing by my animals, they wouldn’t produce. If they weren’t productive, I’d be out of business.” Dan Koster, a conventional pig farmer in Illinois whom I visited a year ago, added a bewildered lament that the public just didn’t get it – “That story doesn’t fly anymore, and I don’t know why, because it’s a fact.”

Is it a fact? Can we trust that business incentives, which motivate farmers to prize (depending on the species) fast growth, good muscling, or prolific milk production, thereby motivate them to treat their animals well? Or are there ways to trick nature – to systematically get away with treating animals poorly yet still get the goods that we are after in the end?

A year of research has led me to believe that the link between what used to be called “good animal husbandry” and financial success, while it probably existed a couple of generations ago, has been severed. Yes, studies still show that, for example, dairy cows whose milkers call them by name outproduce dairy cows whose milkers don’t give them such personal attention. But this higher productivity, while economically beneficial, isn’t ultimately enough to tilt the financial scales in favor of animal welfare, for two reasons. First, in many cases animals no longer need to have high welfare to be productive. Second, even when high welfare leads to high productivity, providing the conditions for it may be so costly that the expense outweighs the dollars gained.

First things first: indeed, fifty years ago, it was generally the case that you had to give animals minimally decent treatment to ensure their productivity. Since then, the widespread use of antibiotics (in all species and breeds) and growth hormones (in dairy herds) has conveniently eliminated the need to do so. True, antibiotics don’t solve all problems, but they do allow you to get away with a lot more foot infections, open sores, and respiratory diseases than you used to. So, rather than having to prevent these scourges by providing animals with, say, natural flooring, fresh air, and space to move freely, you can stuff them in concrete pens breathing ammonia-saturated air and they’ll still grow like weeds. And you’ll come out ahead financially, because antibiotics cost less than welfare-friendly amenities like spacious pens, straw for the floor, and trained workers experienced in animal care.

Secondly, the productivity of the animals in your herd is only one financial consideration, which must be weighed against other financial considerations to achieve the highest profit. In some livestock specialties, it is more profitable to have a slightly less productive herd than to invest in the infrastructure required to raise a more productive herd. The broiler chicken industry is a case in point. The cost of each egg or baby chicken is negligible relative to some of the other costs borne by chicken producers. Huge barns and modern ventilation systems, for example, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and labor costs are also relatively high. Therefore, the most cost-effective arrangement is to crowd as many birds as possible into each building, and spend as little human time as possible looking after them, even though doing so will cause more birds to grow sick and die before they can be sold. A few dead birds, though they reduce the productivity of the flock, represent just pennies of unrecouped costs compared to the vast sums of money that investing in better buildings and people would require.

So no, farmers don’t have to treat their animals well to make them productive, and no, the animals don’t have to be maximally productive for the farmer to be maximally profitable. We consumers cannot rely on financial incentives to align the interests of farmers with the interests of the animals they keep. Instead, we have to do a little legwork to find the farmers, or brands, or certifications, we can trust to do more than race to the low-cost bottom; and we have to be willing to pay a premium for them to do it.

The USDA Challenge to Fischer Family Farms June 10, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week see my article for Heavy Table on how proposed changes to slaughter and processing regulations might endanger small farmers. Plus, some pretty pictures of piggies!

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.

What’s wrong with this picture? May 27, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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This isn’t really the picture I wanted; I had to download it from random web images. The picture I really wanted was the photo I should have taken (but didn’t) cruising up Minnesota State Highway 52 North this past Tuesday. What I saw was the perfect storm: a lone tree in the middle of an otherwise empty field, about half as leafy as the one shown above, and a whole herd of dairy cows plopped down under it, maybe seven times as many as in the photo here.

Now that you’ve got your imagination around that, what’s wrong with it? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. No doubt that plot of land was owned by a small dairy farmer trying to do right by his cows, letting them out to graze. (I will admit that the grass in the field was a lush green, not the brown dust you see above.) No doubt they had plenty of room to roam around, plenty of time to chew their cud, and plenty of low-key companionship from their fellows. In the middle of the day, however, instead of capitalizing on the simple pleasures of bovine life, these cows decided to crowd together like they were in a feedlot worthy of Food, Inc. Why? Because cows overheat easily, and it was an unseasonably warm and sunny 90-degree May day. And the pasture had no other shade. No other trees, no man-made tarps, nothing. Cows in a more natural setting would find the trees by whatever creek was nearby or wade right into the water, but these cows didn’t have that alternative. So they heaved their thousand-pound bodies next to each other to take advantage of every leaf of sun cover available.

Which is why the conventional cattle industry has a good point when they say that confinement inside barns is a plus for animal welfare. Barns are typically dry and temperature-controlled (although in sometimes rudimentary ways) and therefore do remove one perennial source of discomfort for all species: the vagaries of the weather.

But the beauty of it is, we really don’t have to choose between letting cows graze naturally and giving them the shelter from the elements that they would naturally find if not limited to the acreage a farmer happens to own. The best farmers, like two that I met in the past week, do both. Jeff Jump of the Scenic Central Milk Producers’ co-op in Boscobel, WI has a barn and a pasture, and it’s open access for the cows. They get to choose where they want to be. Michelle and Roger Benrud of Benrud Dairy in Goodhue, MN rope off tracts of their tree-lined stream-front property and manage it specifically for the cows’ use on hot days. (Since the Benruds pasture their cows outside in Minnesota winters, too, they build windbreaks out of hay bales so the animals can avoid stinging winter gales.) Kudos to all the farmers out there who are doing it right, and exhortations to all my readers to, as always, KNOW YOUR FARMER.

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.

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