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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.

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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.

PETA under the farmer’s gun again May 20, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I lamented in a prior post the livestock industry’s defensiveness in the face of attacks by animal welfare organizations like PETA and the Humane Society. Wish I could say that they’ve started to see the light, but apparently molting chickens are not the only ones kept in the dark.

The latest tirade against the animal welfare movement comes from a Minnesota dairy farmer, Josh Tharaldson, in a letter to the trade newspaper The Farmer.* Tharaldson resents PETA’s release of a 12-point plan for humane dairy practices which followed an exposé of abuse at a Pennsylvania Land O’ Lakes supplier.  Farmers are an independent bunch and don’t like to be told how to run their businesses by flaky-minded soft-hearted city-dwellers, and Tharaldson is no exception. He correctly points out that some of PETA’s recommendations, like having a vet come out once a week to check herd health, are completely unrealistic: “…there wouldn’t be enough vets in this country to do that, and hiring uncertified individuals would only worsen the problem.”

But what about some of PETA’s other suggestions – my personal favorite being farms installing video cameras of their animal handling areas that are monitored by independent third parties? Well, Tharaldson has better ideas. In response to PETA’s reliance on hidden cameras to document animal abuse in its undercover investigation of the Land O’ Lakes dairy, Tharaldson says “…the placement of a hidden camera on someone’s property without their consent is unethical and invasive…” And, in case you didn’t get the hint, PETA, “Trespassing is against the law.” What should PETA do if not conduct undercover investigations? “…overall, the farmers in this country really care for their animals and wish that PETA would find a different cause to worry about; maybe they should create a plan that addresses the treatment of the homeless people in the United States.”

Among all these suggestions for PETA, what suggestions does Tharaldson have for dairy farmers themselves to prevent the sorts of abuses that have been documented over and over (and over, and over) again by hidden cameras like PETA’s? None. Zip. Zero. He notes that “most” farmers care about their animals; but what about the ones that don’t? And what about the corporate-owned dairies that are not operated by traditional farmers at all, and that supply huge quantities of milk, cheese, and yogurt to ordinary Americans?

Tharaldson has no solution for the animal abuse that inevitably happens in an industry which simply lacks the incentive to prevent it. He has a solution for the negative PR such abuse carries with it, though, and that’s to prevent anyone from seeing it. And he’s not alone; his reaction is typical of the poultry, pork, beef, and dairy industries. Until animal agriculture fesses up that it has a problem, and starts to do something about it (something more than corporate whitewashing, that is), PETA and its like are the only check against abuse that the animals at its mercy have. News flash: the best way for the industry to get PETA off its back is to fix the problem.

*The Farmer, March 2010, p. 10

Meat: the new diapers March 19, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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I’m sure you recently-minted parents out there know about the diaper controversy. Disposable diapers create mountains (literally) of waste. So, maybe twenty years ago, environmentalists started to attack them as yet another example of Americans’ willingness to trade sustainability for convenience. In response, some well-meaning parents decided to go back to smelly, messy cloth diapers. But then people realized that the environmental impact of washing all those cloth diapers was no joke, either. It turned out the story wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and it wasn’t obvious what a sustainability-minded parent should do.

The current outcry about the unsustainability of meat-eating looks headed toward a similarly unsatisfying end. Proselytizing vegetarians (among them Paul McCartney, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer) are pushing a very simple story: if you want to stop global warming, you should stop eating meat. Credible support for this argument comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims that meat consumption is a bigger contributor to global warming than transportation. Since that report was published, the meat-bashing momentum has snowballed, culminating in one subsequently discredited study claiming that meat consumption was responsible for 51% of all global warming emissions!

If only it were that straightforward. The first problem with the blanket directive to eschew meat is that it characterizes all meat as climate-unfriendly. In fact, the global warming impact of different sources of meat (and dairy) varies widely. According to research published in Scientific American, beef cattle are thirteen times worse for the climate than chickens. And on a calorie-for-calorie basis, chicken meat is responsible for fewer greenhouses gases than plant-based foods like apples, bananas, spinach, and rice.* That means that eating low-impact meats like chicken can actually be better for the climate than eating high-impact plant-based foods. Once you start to compare low-impact meats to highly-processed vegetarian alternatives like tofu, a vegetarian diet can start to look downright irresponsible.

Not only does the meat-bashing movement disregard key distinctions between types of meat, it ignores the effects of producing meat in different ways. Nicolette Hahn-Niman elegantly defends the climate credentials of grass-fed beef in an October 2009 piece for the New York Times, and while I don’t agree with every claim she makes, her main point is valid. When cattle are raised on natural prairies – meaning that no rainforest is cleared to graze them and no grain is grown to feed them, but they simply eat naturally-occurring grasses – they have a relatively small climate footprint. That is, relative to conventionally-raised feedlot cattle. The fact that pasturing beef improves its climate “hoofprint” doesn’t, of course, prove that a diet which includes grass-fed beef is as benign as a vegetarian one (and that’s where I think Niman’s claims are overblown), but it does mean that even beef-eating doesn’t have to be quite the villain it was made out to be.

Finally, focusing on meat-eating as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions ignores other food-based sources of emissions that might actually be bigger, but are less-easily quantified. I haven’t been able to track down hard numbers on this, but commentators like James McWilliams in his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly have identified the energy used in food preparation as one of the main contributors to global warming. That means that a burger cooked in a few minutes on the stove might be a more climate-friendly dinner than a (vegan!) pot of rice and beans that requires an hour of simmering. 

So a better slogan than “Stop Eating Meat to Stop Global Warming” might be “Stop Eating Conventionally-Produced Meat from Ruminants, Highly-Processed Foods, Foods Grown on Clearcut Forest and Foods Requiring Substantial Cooking to Stop Global Warming.” Think it’ll catch on?

*Calculated using greenhouse gas emissions per kg food produced for consumption in the UK (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_can_we_go.pdf) and calories per 100g food eaten (http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/13243/calories)

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

Mercy for someone, please February 25, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Mercy for Animals recently released the latest in its series of undercover videos of the conventional livestock industry’s vile treatment of animals. This one offers footage of the largest dairy farm in New York, 7000-cow Willet Dairy, which seems to be run by some of the lowest forms of life that still technically fall into the category “human being.” Interspersed with scenes of calves’ horns burned off while workers dig fingers into their eyes and cows sliding around in their own manure is a completely gratuitous slap in the face for an unsuspecting victim.

I applaud Mercy for Animals for giving us visibility into the world of conventional meat and dairy production, and I’m somewhat starstruck by their undercover agent, who copped a flawless good ol’ boy attitude to provoke the workers into bragging about their sadistic exploits. I’m underwhelmed, however, by lawmakers’ responses to the video. After seeing it, NY Rep. Linda B. Rosenthal introduced a bill that would ban tail docking, a practice shown in the video in which calves’ tails are partly cut off. While tail docking probably should be banned, it’s hardly the most egregious abuse on display at Willet Dairy. What about the obvious things, like, oh, hitting the animals? The state Assistant DA noted after seeing the video that although the treatment of animals in it is shocking, it’s not illegal – in other words, there’s not much that can be done about it.

The fact is that all the bans against tail docking and gestation crates and battery cages in the world will not force farm workers to make nice with the animals. Further, as consumers, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we just buy products from farms that don’t dock cows’ tails, or don’t cage chickens, or whatever, that we are necessarily doing the right thing. We have to find farms that actually respect their animals. They do exist; I’ve seen a number of them. Get to know one of them and buy a share in them through a CSA, or visit them at the farmers market. Don’t wait to find out that Mercy for Animals just shot a video of Your Farm.

Industry: 1. Back-to-nature: 1. And we’re even January 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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[Hypothetical debate between technophiliac conventional industrial dairy farmer (Mack) and back-to-nature ex-hippie independent dairy farmer (Meadow) on the most climate-friendly way to raise dairy cattle.]

Meadow: the fact is, cows that eat grass burp and fart less than cows that are forced to eat grain, like your feedlot cattle. So, they release less climate-destroying methane into the air. We need to go back to feeding cows what they were designed to eat: grass.

Mack: Maybe if you hadn’t smoked so much of your cherished grass in the 60s you’d still be able to do math. Your dainty little cows might emit less methane per cow than mine; but when you take into account how little milk each of them produces, it’s not such a bargain. My cows produce so much more milk than yours that it more than outweighs the extra gas they pass. The fact is, my modern dairy machine emits less methane per gallon of milk produced than your old-school farm.

Meadow: What you people never take into account when you trot out this tired line are the greenhouse gas emissions associated with making the grain that your cows eat to become so super-productive. What about the emissions associated with all the fertilizing, tilling, processing and transporting of the grain to your “modern dairy machine?”

Mack: Yeah yeah yeah, everyone knows that those emissions are peanuts compared to the actual animals’ emissions. Are you going to deny that concentrated feed, in the form of enriched grain, increases milk yield and decreases greenhouse gas emissions per gallon?

Meadow: Again, oversimplifying. OK, it is general knowledge that concentrated feed increases yield and reduces emissions (again, not including the emissions from manufacturing and transporting the concentrate). But that’s not the only thing you’re doing over there in your little shop of horrors. You’re also breeding cows for yield and nothing else, and that’s increasing emissions, even on a per-gallon of milk basis.

Mack: Bull. Breeding for higher yield means we can produce all the milk we need with fewer cows, which means a smaller herd and lower emissions, overall and per gallon of milk. Case closed.

Meadow. If only. The problem is, as you well know, that cows bred for high yield are less fertile and less healthy overall. That means you have to engineer a bigger herd because you know that a large proportion of it will be infertile (and therefore won’t produce milk) and will die young due to poor health. My naturally-raised beauties, however, are all happy and healthy down by our little red barn.

Mack: Well, we are always doing more research to maximize the combination of high yield and high fertility. Granted, we’re not there yet, but where are your numbers to show that reduced health and fertility is such a big problem that it outweighs our gargantuan milk yields?

[Cut. Where, indeed, are the numbers? Many quantitative studies of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions, misleadingly cited by one side or the other in this debate, analyze only one gas (e.g., only methane, only nitrous oxide) or only one source (e.g., only farting, only manure). Many also discuss emissions per animal, but not per unit of output, or do not include the off-farm emissions associated with inputs like fertilizer or cattle feed. One excellent 2006 study,* however, quantifies all these factors for pastured dairy cattle, and concludes that we can minimize GHG emissions by feeding generous amounts of concentrate (grain) to cattle that are bred for medium- (not high-) yield. While this study only analyzes pastured dairy cattle, these strategies also apply to feedlot dairy cattle in the US. What does it mean? From a climate perspective, the conventional dairy industry gets kudos for feeding cows grain instead of just grass, but the back-to-nature folks are right that conventional breeding for high yields is bad news. Looks like each side has something to learn from the other.]

*Lovett et al, “A Systems Approach to Quantify Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Pastoral Dairy Production as Affected by Management Regime,” Agricultural Systems 88 (2006): 156-179.

Grass-fed: something to chew on January 15, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare, Global warming.
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My article for Simple, Good, and Tasty says grass-fed beef may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The best solution, as always, is to know your rancher.

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?

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