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Movie review: Fresh November 3, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Movie reviews.
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The movie Fresh didn’t achieve wide release. That means it relies on volunteers to host screenings and prospective viewers to do a little legwork to find one. As a result, the only people likely to see the movie are those who are already converted to its cause of healthy, local, sustainable food. Accordingly, the screening I attended was patronized by about 200 enthusiasts of all things local and family-farm produced, and was preceded by a light local-food dinner – sustainably-raised pulled chicken sandwiches and 100% grass-fed beef hotdogs.

In a nutshell, Fresh is a celebration of the locavore movement and its heroes. If you’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma or seen Food, Inc. you won’t find any new facts or surprising revelations in this film, but if you’re a locavore in the mood for a morale-boost (and who isn’t sometimes) you will enjoy it. Extensive interviews with OD author Michael Pollan, sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, and urban farming advocate Will Allen inspire an outpouring of “yes we can” sentiment which doubtlessly everyone sitting with you in the theater will share. Just don’t expect any critical discussion or penetrating analysis of the arguments for and against the movement. That’s OK. It’s not the first movie that asks you to suspend judgment for an hour and a half and just enjoy yourself.

Climate chicanery October 30, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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More fodder for global warming skeptics comes from a report by two World Bank affiliates in the November-December issue of World Watch. The article, “Livestock and Climate Change,” does not deny the reality of global warming or the role of livestock in accelerating it, as presented in the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Rather, authors Goodland and Anhang assert that the UN FAO report, which is the definitive study of this topic, understates the volume of livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a whopping 400%. Which makes the climate change researchers at the FAO – and people like me who have relied on their analysis – look like idiots.

But if the FAO report really is massively wrong, out the truth must come, regardless of the resulting damage to the credibility of climate research. So, are Goodland and Anhang courageously exposing a botched analysis, or disingenuously furthering the anti-meat cause with a botched analysis of their own?

First, the sniff test. Goodland and Anhang’s revised GHG estimates imply that livestock are responsible for 51% of anthropogenic global warming! Really, with all our heavy manufacturing in industries from construction to apparel? And all the clever ways we move without actually moving, from elevators to 747s? And all the heating and air conditioning that leaks out our doors and windows? And the long showers and the dishwashers? And (let’s not forget) all that breathing we do? Over half of our emissions come just from livestock? Intuition is not in Goodland and Anhang’s favor.

But let’s dig into the science. Their first point is that the FAO estimates don’t include livestock breathing as a source of CO2 emissions. True, and the FAO isn’t as clear as it could be on why they shouldn’t be included. Stephen Walsh provides an accessible explanation: “the normal fate of a plant is to make way to new plants by dying, decaying and releasing the carbon it absorbed from the atmosphere back to the atmosphere mostly as CO2.  Whether the release of CO2 is facilitated by a large animal’s digestive system or by insects and bacteria in the soil doesn’t matter.” In other words, livestock breathing is just one way plants release carbon in their normal life cycle. If the livestock didn’t exist, plants would do it on their own. (Here is Walsh’s full analysis.)

And if you did think that livestock breathing emissions should be added back into total emissions, you should also add human breathing emissions back in. So when Goodland and Anhang conclude that livestock emissions are 51% of anthropogenic emissions, they are conveniently neglecting another major source, thereby incorrectly inflating the proportion that comes from livestock.  

Next the authors tackle land use. They acknowledge that the FAO counts emissions from converting land from forest to livestock use, but say the estimate is too low because it doesn’t count emissions from all the pre-existing land used to support livestock, which could instead be used to grow climate-friendly biofuels. That’s like saying we should count my bathroom floor as a GHG emitter, because I’m not currently growing biofuels on it. Nutty.

Then the authors get into the tricky business of trying to figure out how to appropriately convert units of methane, which is a GHG released by livestock as they burp, fart, and poop, to CO2-equivalent units. (Emissions of different gases have to be converted to CO2-equivalent units so they can be added together to get a picture of total emissions.) Methane is a far more potent GHG than CO2, but CO2 lasts much longer in the atmosphere. Therefore, the shorter the timeframe you choose to analyze, the worse methane emissions look relative to CO2. Goodland and Anhang suggest that instead of using the 100-year timeframe proposed by the FAO, we analyze emissions over 20 years. This triples how bad methane emissions look once they’re converted to CO2-equivalent units. Here, neither the FAO nor the authors is correct, and neither is incorrect. The choice of timeframe is subjective – if you’re interested in short-term effects of emissions, you’ll choose a shorter timeframe, and if you’re interested in impact over several generations, you’ll choose a longer timeframe. Certainly it’s disingenuous to suggest, as the authors do, that the FAO understates emissions. The FAO is just studying a longer timeframe.

Then the authors have the nerve to avoid recalibrating methane emissions from non-livestock sources as they did for livestock, saying it requires “further work.” So, just as they did with livestock breathing emissions, they inflate livestock methane emissions but conveniently neglect to inflate non-livestock methane emissions. Then of course the percent of emissions from livestock looks astronomical.

Finally, the authors have a catch-all “other” category for miscellaneous emissions they claim the FAO understates. The rationale for increasing the estimates of these “other” categories is often that the FAO is using old information – from the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly. But we know that livestock inventories have increased since then, so we know livestock emissions must have increased too, the authors argue. Yes. And, I would add, we also know that the Chinese are driving a hell of a lot more cars, so emissions from the automotive category should increase. And flying more, and consuming more imported designer clothes… Again, if you’re going to increase livestock emissions to more accurately capture what’s happening in the year 2009, you have to increase all these other categories of emissions as well. But Goodland and Anhang don’t, and that’s why they come up with the eyeball-popping and totally false conclusion that over 50% of current GHG emissions come from livestock.

In sum, we already knew that eating meat was a big driver of global warming. No need to bolster the case with inflated numbers and trumped-up analysis. But thanks, Goodland and Anhang, for making climate change research an easy target for all those naysayers out there.

Chick, chick October 23, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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About six weeks ago, I wrote a post on the killing of male baby chicks in the chicken industry. I lamented the fact that since male chicks have unappetizing meat and can’t lay eggs, all except the few who become breeders are killed after birth. Soon afterward, the charity group Mercy for Animals published an undercover video showing exactly how this is done in many hatcheries: by putting live chicks through a grinder.

Coming from an organization with the name Mercy for Animals, it’s no secret what the purpose of this video is – to make chicken production so physically and morally revolting that people will trade in their McNuggets for McVeggies. However, the agricultural industry newspaper AgWeek published an interesting rebuttal to the video claiming that the chicks, after all, die instantly in the grinder. A welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) commented that “public revulsion … could force a shift to techniques that would be worse for the animals. Gassing male chicks, for example, might appear more humane, but chicks are resistant to the sedative effects and might suffer more…”*

Of course, reading all this I couldn’t help but engage in exactly the sort of anthropomorphism you’re supposed to avoid, and imagined myself shoved down the inverted cone of a grinder – feet first of course, Saw-fashion, to make it last. But that’s exactly the AVMA’s point: this imagined scenario doesn’t come close to what it’s like for the chicks, so anthropomorphizing is a waste of time, and what’s more, might incline one to make a decision that’s actually worse for the animals. Watching the video myself, I had to admit that the rate at which chicks were going through the grinder seemed to ensure that they were killed in no more than one or two seconds. Less fortunate were the chicks who fell through the cracks between conveyor belts and survived, maimed, scorched, and irrelevant to a business which has zero incentive to do the decent thing and grant them a quick death.

*N. Duara, “Hatchery Video a Reality Check for Some,” AgWeek (September 14, 2009): 27.

Even happy cows poop October 16, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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Thousand Hills Cattle Company is huge on the Minneapolis organic/local/sustainable food scene. If you’ve been here and eaten any part of a cow at one of those restaurants whose menu lists where its food comes from, it was probably from Thousand Hills. The company distributes beef from Upper Midwest family farms which pasture their cattle for their entire lives, contrary to the conventional industrial practice of “finishing” them in confined feedlots. At a recent screening of the movie Fresh, the owner, Todd Churchill, gave a speech about why he’s such a proponent of keeping cows on pasture.

Todd extolled the many virtues of pastured beef for human health, animal welfare, and the environment. It’s hard to argue with his view that raising animals on pasture is better than keeping them in confinement, but one of his claims struck me as a bit disingenuous. “Who has heard,” he asked, “that you should be a vegetarian if you care about global warming?” Several people in the audience, including myself, raised their hands. “Well,” said Todd thoughtfully, “that’s true if you’re talking about industrial cattle production. But what’s the energy source for my farmers’ cattle?” An audience member dutifully raised his hand and called out: the sun. “Yes,” said Todd, “that’s right – we feed our cows on grass that uses the sun’s energy. We don’t fertilize and till grain. We use almost no tractors.“ So, the implication was, if you just stick to grass-fed beef you avoid all those nasty chemicals and pollutants that are cooking the earth. No need to give up those burgers.

Is it true that eating pastured beef is just as good, from a global warming perspective, as being a vegetarian? Well, if the aspects of beef production that cause global warming are the fertilizer and tractors that go into it, then eliminating them would make eating beef climate-friendly. If not, we have a problem.

Here’s the breakdown of the sources of livestock emissions from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.*

P10 16 09 for blog 

Houston, we have a problem. Turns out only about 4.5% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions come from fertilizers and on-farm fuel use (e.g., to run tractors). The biggest portion – over 35% – is due to deforestation and desertification, which happens when forest or other virgin land is cleared to provide space to graze animals. Now, to be fair to Todd, if the farmers he works with are using existing grassland rather than clear-cut forests to graze their cattle, they aren’t contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in that way. So add that to the savings from forgoing fertilizer and tractors and they are cutting emissions about 40% by raising cattle on grass.

But two other categories of emissions kind of smack you in the face when you look at that UN pie chart – the emissions from manure (pooping) and enteric fermentation (burping and farting). No, this isn’t the burping and farting that the guys on the tractors do while they’re bouncing along the prairie; this comes from the animals and as such is not eliminated in Todd’s world of happy cows on pasture. Again, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and shave 9% off because certain emissions happen when poop that’s been deposited on the ground gets leached or eroded away, and according to the UN that’s negligible for grassland. So Todd has saved 49% of emissions farming his way, which leaves 51% of livestock emissions still there, even in his relatively clean system. His cows may be happy, but they still poop. Score one point for the vegetarians.

*Pie chart is from UN FAO as quoted in McMichael, Powles, Butler, and Uauy, “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” The Lancet 370 (October 6, 2007): 1258. Information is for all livestock, not just cattle, but cattle are worse than average emitters of greenhouse gases. Therefore using these numbers understates their emissions.

Munching your way to a hotter climate? October 8, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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There’s never any good news about climate change. Not only is it always getting worse – happening faster than we’d thought, wreaking unimagined levels of havoc – but everything we do seems to contribute to it. Why bother changing your light bulbs when your daily commute could illuminate your whole neighborhood? And if you thought driving a car was bad – well, you could drive clear across the planet with the greenhouses gases your Thanksgiving flight home will release. And flying is nothing compared to the damage you’re doing every time you eat a burger!

Reasoning that everything can’t literally be worse than everything else, I did a little research and composed a ranking of our actions’ impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and where meat-eating falls on that list. This ranking is rife with assumptions, but see the chart below for my best shot at the average person’s annual CO2 emissions from various sources.

The greenhouse gas savings from replacing the average US diet with a vegan diet are pretty significant, but it’s even better to leave the Suburban in the garage.

NOTE: The emissions for flying have been corrected; in the initial version of this graph, they were listed as 1.7 tons. (11/24/09)


Diet and cars: Eshel and Martin, “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming,” Earth Interactions v.10 n.9 (2006)

Light bulbs: Fat Knowledge

Air travel: Gallup Poll 12/06 cited in Uclue and Terrapass Carbon Footprint Calculator

Slaughterhouse curiosities October 1, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Visiting two slaughterhouses in southern Minnesota over the past couple of weeks has left me with a number of weighty issues to address. However, I thought I’d start off with just a few curiosities.

  1. Body parts continue to move for a very long time after they’ve been separated from their host. At the facilities I visited, what’s called the kill floor was separated into four stations – one where the animal is stunned, bled out, and trimmed of the head and feet; one where it is skinned, eviscerated, and quartered; one where the small organs are dealt with; and one where the quartered carcass is hosed off. It took about a half hour for an animal to move through all those stages. At one point the person cleaning and separating the small organs that could be sold, like the liver, left her station for a moment. I went over to take a closer look at her handiwork and saw a loosely triangular whitish-pink blob on the stainless steel worktable. This was a cow’s tongue. And it was quivering, probably twenty minutes or so after its previous owner had been killed.
  2. The outsides smell a lot worse than the insides. The room attained its olfactory nadir when a particularly dirty cow – one whose coat was covered with mud and dung – entered the stunning chamber. It was a relief to finally get the skin off and thrown into a rubber trash can for disposal. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to smell.
  3. No one wore gloves. Perhaps I expected them to because I’m used to seeing food handlers at various fast food establishments don gloves (and then use them to touch not only my food, but my money, the cash register, and whatever other disease-carriers are within arms’ reach) but these folks dug bare-fisted and elbow-deep into carcasses to drag out the organs.

Cows vs. water September 25, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Would you rather have happy cows or clean water? Unfortunately, the Illinois EPA says you have to choose one or the other, according to a cattle farmer who shared with me his dilemma. Five years ago, this farmer’s 500 cows could move at will between the sunny pastures of outdoor exercise pens and the shade of a roofed-over concrete lot. The food bunks were in the concrete building, so the cows would come in several times a day to feed, but they spent most of their time outside – even in winter, even in snow. It might seem odd that they’d rather be scattered around in the snow than huddled up for warmth under shelter from the elements, but that was their preference, perhaps because even cold ground is easier on the hooves than a concrete floor.

Now those same cows are inside on concrete 24/7, and why? Because a creek runs a quarter-mile away from the former pasture, and the state EPA judged that the land had the potential to leak manure runoff into that waterway. Of course, no one’s going to argue that you shouldn’t protect the water supply, and manure runoff can be a very serious threat. However, according to this farmer, he walked the EPA rep right over to the creek to prove that there was no way runoff could ever reach it; when that failed to convince them, he created three different plans for runoff basins that would catch it before it would hit the stream, but that still didn’t satisfy the EPA. The only thing that did was taking all but 80 of the cows off the land and putting them in a building. (Which, by the way, he had to spend a quarter of a million dollars to build.)

Now, the EPA rep wasn’t there to give his side of the story, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that he was right – that it was impossible to both allow these animals the space and comfort of grazing on grass and keep the water safe. What kind of food system are we building, that we can’t give decent care to the environment and animals at the same time?

Can a confined cow be happy? September 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I toured an 8000-head cattle CAFO (for the uninitiated, Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in Illinois this Tuesday. Based on unflattering footage of such feedlots in Food Inc., PETA videos, etc. I was prepared for the worst. And I came away thinking… it really wasn’t cow hell after all. Yes, most of the cows were penned on concrete, not frolicking on sunlit pastures. Yes, cowshit covered the floors, and it stank; this offends humans, but perhaps not cows. Yes, there were a few lame cows awkwardly suspending one hoof in the air as they balanced their 1200 pounds on the other three, but the vast majority could walk around and lay down unimpeded. They had healthy-looking coats, seemed alert, could interact with each other, and had plenty of food and water. The people handling them seemed calm and reasonable folk, not electric prod-wielding sadists.

So, is a well-run CAFO where the employees don’t abuse the animals a decent place for cattle to live? Not being cows, we can’t know for certain that these animals are either happy or miserable. However, we do know that even in a well-managed, clean CAFO run by responsible people, the cows cannot engage in most of the activities they naturally would. They cannot graze, which is the defining activity of a cow if there ever was one. They cannot mate (unless they are part of a breeder operation, and then it’s often through artificial insemination) and they cannot bear or raise young. They cannot walk on grass or dirt, instead subsisting on concrete, which strains their hooves and joints. They cannot choose sun or shade. Without a lot of armchair bovine psychology, I think we can say that if there is anything that makes a cow’s life worth living, it’s these things. And even a well-run CAFO can’t provide them.

*Note that I use the term “cow” here in the layman’s sense, to cover all bovines, which really include heifers, cows, steers, and bulls.

Book review: Skinny Bitch September 13, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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How far a good title will take you. Even when you disavow it in the last chapter, as Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do in Skinny Bitch, their New York Times best-selling tirade against unhealthy food, animal cruelty, and the irresponsible government that lets it all happen. As Freedman and Barnouin state, despite repeated admonishments throughout the book to “Get Skinny” they only use the skinny thing as a ploy to get people to buy the book. They really want you to Get Vegan.

So if, as a reader, you can get over being suckered into buying a book you didn’t want to read, is it worth reading? Yes and no. If you like cardio classes taught by drill sergeant cut-the-crap types, you’ll probably like the tough-love writing style. Just be prepared that the content is entirely one-sided. The “facts” are not always facts. (For example, SB claims, “Half of all antibiotics made in the United States each year are administered to farm animals, causing antibiotic resistance in the humans who eat them.” But the link between animal antibiotic use and human resistance, though plausible, has never been proven.) The sources are too often secondary and have their own predictably extreme orientation (e.g., “Milk Sucks” from PETA.org).

Having said that, SB does effectively expose the machinations of the USDA, the EPA, and the FDA to keep the meat industry running at all costs. And the many quotes from the book Slaughterhouse are a grimly hard-hitting reminder of why this all matters in the first place. So SB may be worth a skim, with your BS radar on.

Does organic matter? September 3, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Organic food might be better for your health (studies are trying to work that out) because it more or less prohibits pesticides from entering your food. But does it make a difference to the way animals are treated? Do animals used to make organic meat, milk, or eggs lead decent lives?

Here are the relevant conditions producers must provide to ensure animals’ health and welfare, from a summary of the USDA’s organic standards for livestock:

  • Conditions which allow for exercise, freedom of movement and reduction of stress appropriate to the species
  • Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment
  • Access to pasture for ruminants
  • Appropriate clean, dry bedding
  • Shelter designed to allow for natural maintenance, comfort behaviors and opportunity to exercise; temperature level, ventilation and air circulation suitable to the species; and reduction of potential for livestock injury
  • The producer of an organic livestock operation may provide temporary confinement for an animal because of: (1) inclement weather; (2) the animal’s stage of production

Which all sounds just peachy except for those modifiers “appropriate” and “suitable,” no doubt selected for their convenient indeterminacy. The USDA lets the producer decide what’s appropriate. Vague requirements like “access to” the outdoors and pasture mean that organic producers can (and do) raise chickens whose access to pasture consists of a shed door through which they never pass, and breeder pigs and dairy cows which are confined for most of their lives because their “stage of production” covers most of their lives. The National Organic Coalition itself has protested that the USDA standards are toothless. That pretty much says it.

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