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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.

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?

Truth in labeling: animal welfare certifications December 4, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Those of us who don’t personally know the farmers and processors who produce the animals we eat find it difficult to ascertain just how those animals were treated during their lives and deaths. Never fear, though, there’s plenty of marketing right there on the packages to make us feel better about eating them anyway. Some labels sport pictures of spotted cows whimsically scampering over pastures (useless). Some use catchphrases alluding to how the animal lived, e.g., cage-free or pasture-raised (semi-useful – more on this in a later post). And some feature third-party certifications from independent organizations focused on animal welfare. Their independent status and the fact that companies that participate in their programs must submit to inspections make third-party certifications the most trustworthy indicator of animal welfare for the consumer who seeks ethically produced meat. But how do the different certification programs compare?

Here’s my ranking of a few of the most widely used certifications out there, ordered from most to least strict protector of animal welfare. For each, I include an example of their requirements for beef cattle and poultry housing. Housing governs how much space the animals get and what activities they are able to engage in – both key determinants to quality of life for animals.

Animal Welfare Approved. This organization upholds the strictest welfare guidelines I could find.

  1. Beef cattle: cattle must always have access to pasture, except under extreme weather conditions. A less serious organization would leave that exception vague and open to (mis)interpretation by the farmer, but AWA specifies that a particular weather condition, e.g., ice storms, temperatures below a given threshold, must be cited to keep cattle indoors. The farmer can’t just move them in from November 1st to Feb 28th and be done with it.
  2. Meat chickens: pasturing is not required, but birds older than four weeks must have multiple access routes to the outdoors and the housing structure must encourage birds to go outside during daylight. These requirements prevent the farmer from just opening a narrow door for a week or two that chickens never actually use, and claiming that the birds have access to the outdoors.

Food Alliance. This group’s certification scheme covers not just animal welfare, but environmental stewardship and social responsibility, a plus for consumers who care about all these things and like the simplicity of having just one logo to look for on the label. The certification process is more complex than one like Animal Welfare Approved’s. Food Alliance has only a few all-or-nothing standards that producers must meet. For most standards, Food Alliance gives producers a score from 1-4, then awards certification if the average score in each area is at least a 3. Their “areas” are rather broad; an example of one is “healthy and humane care of livestock,” and it includes nutrition, health, living conditions, handling, etc. In practice, a producer could score very low on living conditions but still be certified if they score very high in several other areas. This approach has pros and cons: the obvious con is that you won’t be sure, by purchasing Food Alliance certified foods, that any particular standard, e.g., for pasturing livestock, will be met. On the other hand, the flexibility of this approach allows farmers who are trying to improve their operations but aren’t yet perfect to gain access to conscientious consumers and get the financial support to continue to improve.

  1. Beef cattle: to achieve a level 3, cattle must range on pasture for part of the year. No specific length of time is specified.
  2. Meat chickens: to achieve a level 3, birds must either be housed in a building that provides natural daylight and fresh air or they must be given access to the outdoors for at least eight hours a day, weather permitting. The number and location of exits to the outdoors must be enough to allow all birds to go out and the setup must encourage birds to go out.

Certified Humane. The ASPCA and Humane Society support this program, which was the first of its kind. This certification is much weaker than Animal Welfare Approved or Food Alliance and doesn’t do much more than ensure the animals aren’t in absolute hell. [July 2011 – see amendment below!]

  1. Beef cattle: cattle are allowed to be kept in indoor or outdoor feedlots for finishing, without access to pasture. Requirements that promote welfare include having a dry place to lie down; non-slip floors; and access to water or shade during hot weather in outdoor feedlots.
  2. Meat chickens: chickens can be housed indoors at all times without access to natural daylight. Provisions to protect animal welfare include a ban on cages, wires, and slatted floors and a requirement to have at least 8 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness per day.

United Egg Producers Certified, Beef Quality Assurance Certified, Pork Quality Assurance Plus Certified, etc. These are all certifications granted by industry associations, not independent third parties. The purpose of an industry association is to grow sales and profits for that industry. There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s their job – but the mission of an industry association is not to care for animal welfare. These certifications are no more than packaging decoration.

NOTE: As of July 2011, I’d like to amend my judgment of Certified Humane’s certification. It’s actually a first-rate program and stricter than Food Alliance. I have been doing much more detailed research on certifications for my upcoming book and have found Certified Humane to be a trustworthy partner in the search for ethically produced meat and dairy. More to come!

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)

Sources

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

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?

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