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Lorentz Meats November 13, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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My article for Heavy Table explains why people who care about animal welfare and those who just want to avoid poop in their food should take a look at the example set by Lorentz Meats.

Book review: In Defense Of Food November 12, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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I’m cheating a bit by posting a review of Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, on this blog. The book doesn’t focus on food ethics, but is mostly a commentary on food history and culture, so its topic is tangential to mine. But it’s Michael Pollan, so I can’t resist at least giving it a mention (insert sheepish shrug).

Pollan kicks off IDOF with an attack on nutritionism, the notion that we can explain everything important about food in terms of its component nutrients. The arrogant assumption accompanying nutritionism is that scientists can create a comprehensive list of everything human health requires and then engineer foods – or processed food-like substances – that deliver them to us, thereby making and keeping us healthy. Pollan lays bare the sad history of scientists’ attempts to do so, culminating in the advice to avoid fat and cholesterol that has so influenced the American diet over the past 30 years and is in the process of being debunked. He follows that up with a discussion of the current western diet and its links to the western diseases: heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. And finally, he gives some advice for how we should eat instead.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan proves himself a lyrical writer capable of evoking the misery of the feedlot or the electricity of the hunt, but in IDOF he is best when he sticks to pure journalism, as when he reveals the absurdity of the scientific community’s reliance on a couple of obviously flawed studies to shape Americans’ eating habits for generations. He anticipates and convincingly deflects challenges, like the oft-heard proposal that we are only seeing more cases of heart disease and cancer because health care advances cause people to live longer, and older. (As Pollan points out, life expectancy has mostly increased because infant and childhood death rates have dropped, not because people who would have died at 50 are now living to 70 and getting cancer in their old age.) He takes the care to document evidence that lazier writers merely gesture at – for example, the studies that show that conventional produce is becoming less nutritious over time.

One does get the feeling that his huge success has taken a small toll on the quality of his writing. Pollan has a few shrill or self-indulgent moments, which I haven’t noticed in his previous work. (Do we really need to be prodded along with “Say what?” (p. 43) and “Do I need to go on?” (p. 189) to appreciate Pollan’s points?) Also, his closing advice on how to eat needs more thought. He wants us to embrace a traditional food culture, but also to eat healthily, and is thrown off by cases in which those two ideals conflict, as they may in his own traditional Eastern European Jewish diet. Still, if you’re interested in the topic, he is the one to read.


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.

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.

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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