I do not raise cattle or grow crops. I am not a graduate student in agricultural science. I don’t work for Cargill or the USDA. So what right do I have to blog about food issues and make suggestions for improving the food system? I might find this argument mildly compelling if it weren’t for the fact that I’m not the only one who feels this way! Farmers across the country think like I do and are asking for change. In a lot of cases, farmers are making change and paving the path toward a better food system that bucks the industrial trend. Here are a few for your consideration.
Joel Salatin: The crown prince of the pasture. What else can I say? This man is a poster child for raising animals responsibly with hard work and some headstrong common sense. He’s a prolific writer as well, check out some of his superb books including Folks, This Ain’t Normal! From his website, “We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture…Experience the satisfaction of knowing your food and your farmer, building community. We are your clean meat connection.”
Galen Bontrager Farm (Kalona, IA): Galen is awesome! We buy beef, chicken, eggs and Thanksgiving turkey from him! He’s a former apprentice of none other than Joel Salatin. From Galen’s website, ” I am a direct-marketing farm entrepreneur dedicated to providing superior quality food using innovative practices that heal the land, respect animal welfare, and strengthen the local community. I am your “beyond organic” farm-food connection. I am an education and information outreach to consumers and producers who seek to bring redemption to their food, environment, land, animals, water quality, and community.”
Grass Run Farms (Dorchester, IA): We buy bacon and hot dogs from these wonderful people! From their website, “Grass Run Farm stands for long-term land stewardship, sound family values, and the far-reaching health benefits of grass-fed and pasture-raised meats. We’re building healthy soils, managing pastures that sequester tons of atmospheric carbon and tending livestock in a humane and respectful manner.”
La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats (Norwalk, IA): These people make some of the tastiest prosciutto in the world! From their website, “We use no pigs from CAFOs (large animal confinement facilities).” Oh, how different than most pork product manufacturers! Just a bit more about their pig philosophy, “All pigs must have access to the out-of-doors, have room to move around and socially congregate, and be able to root in deep bedding. This respects the pigs’ social instincts and natural behaviors.”
George Naylor (Churdan, IA): He grows corn & soybeans in Iowa, but doesn’t use Genetically Modified Seeds! He’s a former President of the National Family Farm Coalition. He fights hard against the power of Monsanto and the GMO seed monopoly. Food Democracy Now recently quoted him as saying, “Farmers, ranchers, and the public should not want ‘cheap’ food, but food of good quality that’s affordable.”
Sugar Mountain Farm (West Topsham, VT): Shockingly, they raise pastured pigs in frigid Vermont because it IS possible. They don’t buy commercial hog feed. They don’t have huge manure lagoons next to their farm. They are a No Weird Stuff farm! From their website, “We are a small, family owned and operated farm in the mountains of Vermont. We breed and raise pigs all naturally on pasture and hay plus dairy to produce our high quality pork as well as live piglets for people who would like to raise their own.”
Barrington Natural Farms: They serve the Chicagoland area!
From their website, “Barrington Natural Farms is sustainable “pasture” farm providing our Chicago-area customers with locally grown, organically-raised grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and pork, and free-range eggs. All of our livestock are raised outdoors on pasture, eating what nature intended – naturally-grown ryegrass, timothy grass, meadow fescue, clover, and alfalfa in the pasture, with the chickens and hogs pasture forage diet supplemented with organically-certified, non-GMO grains and surplus organic fruits and vegetables.
We are dedicated to using sustainable agriculture practices, so we don’t use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other “cides” on our land or in our animals. We rotate the chickens, pigs, and cattle to fresh pasture regularly during the spring, summer, and fall months, and use a deep bedding system in the winter which we then convert to garden compost in the spring.
We do not feed, implant, or inject our animals with hormones, antibiotics, chemical dewormers, or any other pharmaceutical concoctions typically used in the industrial/confinement-based food system, except in very rare circumstances to treat a specific life-threatening illness. The fresh air, clean water, lush pasture, low-stress lifestyle, and clean, mineral-rich soil keep our livestock exceptionally healthy.”
Mike Callicrate (Colorado): Mike is an independent cattle producer and meat processor. He has a degree in animal science from Colorado State University. He’s not a big fan of pink slime and the industrialized meat system. From his most recent blog post, “The “fat is bad”, “food should be cheap”, “Wall Street is the economy”, “only an industrial food system can feed the world” mentality, reminds us of how science, poor judgment and industry controlled government agencies can lead to some very bad outcomes. It is time to open the farm and ranch gates and packing house doors, fully revealing our food system to the public.”
This is but the tip of the iceberg of farmers who stand against industrialized agriculture. I am not the only one and I am not a lone nut who associates with other nuts like Michael Pollan & Mark Bittman. I have never met either of them, but we do have something in common. We’re interested in supporting fair non-industrialized sustainable local-regional food systems that are healthier for the planet, animals and people.
Here is a conventional Ohio turkey farmer speaking about his operation. I should note that he does not sell directly to consumers, rather he’s a contract grower for a meat processor:
Here is the Lindenhof Farm, an 85-acre farm in Pennsylvania. I should note that hormones are not allowed in poultry farming, but antibiotics can be used.
Questions to ask after viewing:
1. What are the important differences between the two operations?
2. What are my first reactions to the two different operations?
3. What kind of turkey operation do I want?
I’m not going to be able to cover every aspect or potential counter argument in this post. And I’m going to be concentrating on corn that is fed to cattle because that’s the poster child for “corn-fed”. Let’s just get that out-of-the-way. But I’m going to try really hard to cover the important things!
The 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA, used mostly for Livestock Feed.
5,525 million bu. were used for livestock feed which amounts to 42% of the maize crop.
From PBS Frontline:
“Before the second World War, all American beef was “grass-finished,” meaning that cattle ate pasture grass for the duration of their lives. Today, the vast majority of cattle spend anywhere from 60-120 days in feedlots being fattened with grain before being slaughtered. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or “free-range” meat, the beef bought at the grocery store will be of the corn-finished variety.”
Why the change?
Several reasons, among them:
1. Cattle reach slaughter weight faster when corn finished.
2. Better fat marbling which supposedly tastes better
3. You can raise more corn-fed cattle on less land (i.e. feedlot) than letting them be pasture finished (i.e. that takes more land).
This is all to say that corn-fed cattle are cheaper for the consumer and more profitable for the producer. Who can argue with that you might say? Isn’t that the goal of modern animal agriculture? Cheaper prices at the checkout and more profits for the producer…everyone wins, right?
Not so fast.
Just some of the problems with feeding corn to cattle:
1. Corn-fed beef just isn’t as healthy as grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has more Omega-3 fatty acids (the good ones), more Vitamin E, more beta-carotene, less saturated fat and calories and more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). CLAs are known for anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits. Meat products from grass-fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than those of cattle fed the usual diet of 50% hay and silage, and 50% grain.
2. Corn has a little environmental problem. From an Environmental Working Group (EWG) article: “A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” The “Dead Zone” is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, around 3,300 square miles. The corn industry lobby tried to deflect claims that corn production is responsible for the “Dead Zone”…but EWG has pointed out how it’s nothing more than a cop-out. Read this fascinating response.
3. Currently, corn-based beef production is an unsustainable enterprise. We use oil for every aspect of production. Oil for fertilizer to grow the corn. Oil to transport the corn to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle from the pasture to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle to the slaughterhouse. Oil to transport the meat to your local grocery store. Oil, oil, oil! Guess what, an oil-based system is not sustainable! It’s going to run out and before it does the price will skyrocket given limited availability to the point that oil-based systems of production will be a laughingstock.
4. Subsidies. The government doles out billions every year in subsidies to corn growers. This means that corn-production and subsequently any industry that relies on cheap corn is built on a house of cards. Take away the subsidies and the business model fails. The house falls down. EWG has calculated that corn subsidies from 1995-2010 totaled 77.1 BILLION DOLLARS! Why are we subsidizing an unsustainable industry that produces meat that is less healthy for people? Corn is produced for less than the real cost to grow it. What other industry enjoys such a luxury? If I wanted to start a small organic vegetable farm you can bet I wouldn’t be getting any subsidies to help me out.
5. There’s nothing “natural” about the conventional corn-finished feedlot way raising cattle. You see a lot of meat packages in the grocery store that say “all-natural” but all that means is that it meets the USDA definition of “natural” which is “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” What’s “natural” about feeding cows harvested corn? What’s natural about using lots of fertilizer and chemicals to grow that corn? What’s natural about using millions of gallons of oil to support the whole system? What’s natural about making a product which is less healthy than what the real natural grass-based system would give us?
6. Confinement on the feedlots. Like Bernie Mac’s character’s domino game in Ocean’s 13, “Nuff Said.”
Here’s a picture of what a typical feedlot looks like:
Here’s how I see things…
Cattle have evolved to eat and digest grass which has grown free of man-made input thanks to the energy of the sun. So, why do we spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on artificial fertilizers, chemicals and everything else it takes to grow lots and lots of corn that we feed to animals? Why do we use so much oil to make food for cattle when all the food they would ever need grows naturally without any other input than the sun and a little rain from above. Interestingly enough, cattle can graze standing corn. After all, corn is a type of grass. This can be used to take some of the stress off the pasture. But this is a far cry from growing corn and harvesting it so that it can be the exclusive feed of cattle in the feedlots.
A lot of people will counter that if we switch to grass-based systems, if we do everything you’re talking about then you have to choose which people in the world will starve to death as a result. I’d like to counter that line of reasoning with two points. First, we don’t have a global food shortage problem, we have a global food distribution problem. Second, people are already starving to death and I’m not aware of any goodwill programs from major animal agriculture companies that are trying to address that problem. We sure could make better use of grains by giving them to poor people than by feeding them to cattle so we Americans can have cheap meat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack every day.
Yes, at least initially, pastured meat products will cost more. I think that, along with any kind of change, scares people. It scares them into thinking, “What if meat costs more and I have to eat less of it?” People like meat, duh. But we Americans probably eat way too much of it. It’s no longer a special part of a meal. It is the meal.
I’m reminded of a quote from Agent Smith in The Matrix: “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
While I don’t think machines (i.e. the ones that took over in The Matrix) are the answer to our uniquely human problem. I do think it’s necessary to ponder that perhaps we’re over-consuming meat. We’ve taken the amount of meat that nature will provide for us with natural systems and twisted in to factory farming to give us more. We do whatever it takes to get more for less. Shouldn’t we be thinking that less can be more? I think so.
And it all boils down to…
Why do we spend billions of dollars countering a grass-based system that God has given us and try to replace it with an unnatural oil and corn based feedlot factory farm system? Like I’ve said before, I’m not an absolutist. So, if people just can’t part with “corn-fed” taste then I would be fine with the product as a specialty “every-once-in-a-while” treat that would cost more. And only if it wasn’t part of a factory farming feedlot system. If farmer John wants to raise a few corn-fed cows beside the majority of pastured cows that would be OK with me.
Using a pasture grass-based production system is about what’s right, not what’s status quo for a multi-billion dollar industry that sees a lot of money ending up in the hands of shareholders and CEOs and delivering us ever-increasing amounts of meat for less money. When all you consider is “How do we make this cheaper?” things start taking a back seat to that all-consuming goal of “cheapness.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a food system to be based on what’s cheapest. I’d like it to be based on what’s right.
Additional Note: I’ve been concentrating on beef cattle livestock feed. If I covered every aspect of corn used for livestock feed I’d write a novel. But, I thought you should know that a large portion of corn does go to hog production, dairy cow production and chicken production. Virtually all of these systems are also factory farm “bigger, better, cheaper” systems that are heavily oil-dependent, use animal-confinement and there is nothing “natural” about these systems. These animal products can also be part of a bigger grass-based system. Perhaps no one does grass-based better than Joel Salatin. He explains it in under 3 minutes in this must-watch video.
I was really impressed with American Meat. The documentary was more ambitious than I would have guessed. It was fair and not myopic. Graham Meriwether (the director, cinematographer and producer) anticipated his critics and really gives us a complete (as much as can be in one documentary) picture of the current problem with our food system.
Some points that really stood out:
1. “Food connects us all” — I agree 100% and that’s why I believe wholeheartedly that “food activism” or whatever you want to call it is absolutely necessary because food is such an important part of every day of our lives. I remember learning in grade school that there were some basics to life: food, shelter and clothing. Food is top 3! Now obviously there are other aspects of life that are absolutely necessary as well, but food certainly connects us all in meaningful ways. When you think back on your life it’s a good bet some of the best family times involved food.
2. “We’re so removed from our food…” — The vast majority of Americans get their food at a restaurant or a grocery store. The reality is the grocery store is several if not several dozen steps removed from the actual place where your food came from. Do you know how the chicken that ended up in your saran wrapped package from the grocery store was killed? Would you be willing to find out? I’m not saying that killing a chicken is inherently wrong or immoral. Far from it. However, it’s important to realize that chickens are thought of as “protein units” in an industrial system that values bigger, better cheaper over all else. The chicken slaughterhouse is a unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine an unending conveyor belt of chicken carcasses whizzing by all day long. Imagine you’re a worker on that line and you have worry every day if today is going to be the day you slice off your finger or have to be sidelined from work because of a repetitive stress injury. Virtually no one thinks about this when they buy chicken at the supermarket or order chicken strips at the restaurant. Read more about poultry production here. We literally have no idea where our food came from in most cases. The box or package doesn’t show the whole story.
3. Cost is a major problem — I’ve seen this scenario a dozen times: You nearly run out of breath telling someone the whole truth about factory farming and they respond “but no one can afford what you’re talking about, millions would be unable to afford that kind of food system.” This is one of the biggest issues in transitioning from a factory farming system to a sustainable farming system. I’d like to make three brief points: 1) We’re unfairly subsidizing the factory farming system so that the true costs are not reflected in the end product. Also, read this piece by Marion Nestle. 2) We should really be concerned about how a lot of people don’t make what would be considered a “living wage”. We should be concerned not just about making food affordable but making people able to afford food. 3) Factory farming is an unsustainable system and we literally have no choice but to convert to sustainable farming in the near future or we’ll really be in trouble. What I’m trying to say is factory farming is essentially connected to a barrel of oil. If we’re concerned about getting America “off of foreign oil” and thinking next-generation with our vehicles (electric, fuel cell, etc.) then we should really be thinking next-generation sustainable farming.
4. “Know your farmer and just completely opt out of the system” — quote by the hilariously spot on Joel Salatin. He’s a “character” is what my Grandma might say. Joel asks “if you could get paid a nice wage for working with your hands doing something that was healing would you give up your globalist agenda Dilbert cubicle job? A lot of people would.” I think that’s a beautiful statement. Have you ever gone outside and worked with your hands and had that sense of satisfaction of a job well done. I know you know the feeling. It’s a great one. Joel is basically saying you could make a living out of that feeling and do a world of good at the same time. The need is there and now we need the warm bodies. I was inspired by the number of new farmers chronicled in the documentary. I was especially impressed with one middle-aged man who gave up his 100K a year salaried job to be a delivery man for a farm (I believe it was Polyface farms, Joel Salatin’s farm) and how much better his life has been as a result.
4. We’re going to need more farmers — I think that’s good news. American Meat basically tells us to follow the advice of Ghandi himself and “be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we transition to sustainable farming we will need more farmers. It’s as simple as that. Today’s “get big or go home” farming manifesto doesn’t need a lot (relatively speaking) of labor on the farm. When you take petroleum out of the equation you must replace that with the physical labor of people on the farm. Over the past several decades we’ve seen a decay of small town America and the small sustainable family farm is nearly extinct. The average age of a farmer today is 57. We need young people to aspire to be farmers. We need to show young people that something exciting is happening out on the farm and they should be a part of it.
Assignment: Watch the trailer for American Meat below. Then visit the website http://www.americanmeatfilm.com and look for a screening near you. If there’s no screening near you, request a screening.
My wife and I have the chance to see a screening of the documentary “American Meat” this Wednesday in Iowa City, IA. I’m super excited and I promise to write about the documentary as soon as I’m able! For now, you can go watch the trailer on their website and get a glimpse of the issues that will be discussed in the documentary. Check back soon!
Consider the following quote from Joel Salatin (excerpted from this NY Times discussion):
“Official government policy for nearly a century has been to grow everything faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper, without regard to higher moral or ethical considerations. As long as Americans demand food as cheap as ecological, emotional and economic abuse delivers, the corporate-government food fraternity will thrive.
Every day we can vote with our food dollars to patronize abusive systems or respectful systems. Today is a good time to start patronizing the respectful system.”
He really captures the essence of the problem at hand and a solution in a few short sentences.
Read it again.
Now, focus your mind and really think about what you just read.
You may now be asking yourself, “How do I start patronizing respectful systems?” Start with these two links below:
I love Chipotle burritos. You don’t understand…it’s my favorite meal of all time.
However, I have a Chipotle dilemma.
To eat their meat or not.
Chipotle advertises “food with integrity” on their website and is generally known as the only fast food restaurant that actually tries to do something different with their ingredient sources. Luckily, Chipotle gives us a lot of information about their practices on their website.
About their pork:
“There are ranchers whose pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet. It’s the way animals were raised 50 years ago before huge factory farms changed the industry. We believe pigs that are cared for in this way enjoy happier, healthier lives and produce the best pork we’ve ever tasted.
We call this style of ranching naturally raised, and since 2001, we have sourced 100% of our pork from producers who follow these guidelines.”
About their beef:
“Today, thanks to increased demand, we purchase 85 percent of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards. We’re still working on it, and we won’t rest until 100% of our beef is naturally raised.”
About their chicken:
They mention that their “ultimate goal is to have 100% of our chickens raised without the use of antibiotics.” They also “want to avoid any supplier that uses additional additives in their feed, like arsenic.”
“But we haven’t forgotten about pigs and chickens. Though the process is more complex, we are trying to find suppliers who can provide us with pasture-raised poultry and pork. Eventually, we want all of our meat to come from suppliers who meet these standards. We’re definitely working on it. Stay tuned.”
“In 2010, Chipotle plans to serve at least 50% of at least one produce item from local farms when it is seasonally available (more than 50% and more than one item any time we can). Those vegetables include romaine lettuce, red onions, green bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, and oregano.”
What to make of all this?
I’m impressed that they’re committed to sourcing 100% of their pork in the above mentioned way. It’s the way all pork should be raised across the country.
So, do I eat their pork to support the ranchers who raise their pigs this way? Or do I forego the pork because of these reasons 1) The meat must be transported long distances to reach my local Chipotle 2) My purchase does not benefit my local farm economy (although Chipotle at least makes an attempt to obtain some local produce).
My vision for the future of food in American involves first and foremost local sustainable humane farm economies. Chipotle doesn’t fit the mold. This is very rare, especially for a large corporation such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. But I think Chipotle is trying and I’d like to support that. Does my vision for the future include chain restaurants around the country sourcing their food as cheaply as possible and run by a centralized corporate structure? Nope. But am I leaving open the possibility that perhaps Chipotle will innovate its way in to the future? Yes. I would support a locally owned Chipotle restaurant based on the Chipotle “theme” that sources all ingredients locally. That’s a future I can look forward to and I believe Chipotle is a lot closer to this vision than any other fast food restaurant in America.
Best Choice: Eat a vegetarian burrito and enjoy quacamole on it at no extra cost, it’s $1.80 extra with the meat burritos if I remember right. Then go find a local farmer who raises meat the right way and bring some home for yourself or the family and cook a great dinner the next night.
Reasonable Alternative: Eat a vegetarian burrito with guacamole most times and enjoy a carnitas burrito every once in a while. You can feel good about this because even though the pork is transported from far away to your local Chipotle, at least it was raised the right way and Chipotle is committed to working towards the right things, unlike most fast food restaurants.
Not So Good: The beef and chicken…although Chipotle is trying…isn’t quite there. “Naturally raised” beef doesn’t impress me. But I do commend them for telling us the vision — even if it’s not realized — to use pasture-raised poultry. Don’t beat yourself up over their chicken and beef, but know there are better alternatives mentioned above. Chipotle is making strides with their ingredients, but it’s OK to tell them you’re not quite satisfied and they need to keep working hard.
We need to remember that no restaurant is going to be perfect…not by a long shot. But I feel a whole lot better eating at Chipotle than I do Olive Garden or other “sit down fast food restaurant.” I really do believe getting the pork at Chipotle is a whole lot better than getting a vegetarian dish at Olive Garden. We shouldn’t dismiss anything short of perfection, but we also can’t reward mediocrity and lack of effort. I think Chipotle is making a lot of good solid steps in the right direction and I think we can all support that!
Keep up the good work Chipotle!