India: My Food Photoblog

In October 2011, I spent a month in northern India doing an International Medicine clerkship for school. I flew in to New Delhi and took a train 6 hours north to Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where I spent most of my time. I also visited Rishikesh, Mussoorie, Patti village, and Agra (the Taj Mahal!) It was always my goal to take photographs of the food I ate and post them on the blog. Obviously, it’s taken a ridiculously long time, but here we go! I apologize that the following pictures aren’t the greatest because A.) I’m no Ansel Adams and B.) I was using a circa 2004 digital camera. I hope you find the photographs interesting nonetheless. I obviously didn’t photograph everything I ate, but here are some of the food-related pictures.

A Rice Field in Patti

Cattle And Chicken Living Outside Together

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The Truth Is Somewhere in the Middle

I had the great pleasure to attend a lecture given by Dr. Temple Grandin last night at the University of Iowa. She has done innumerable positive things in the cattle industry and her work cannot go without praise. Her talk was mainly about the autism spectrum, but also included some tidbits about her work in the cattle industry.

Dr. Temple Grandin put two very important concepts in my head last night.

1. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

I think this is great advice and bound to be true. It’s something for both sides of any issue to realize. In my thoughts and writings on food I try to follow this sentiment. But, like all humans sometimes I fail and become entrenched on one side of an issue or fail to consider the opposing viewpoint fully.

I don’t think everyone should become a vegan. I don’t think everyone should be vegetarian. I think the lifestyles are fine and people should not be judged for being vegan or vegetarian. And it’s most definitely not my goal to end all animal agriculture! I do believe in a world where humans consume animals for food and other uses.

But I don’t think current industrial agriculture is the pinnacle of greatness that some claim it to be. I think food corporations and meat processors have too much power. I think there are a lot of slaughterhouse workers and migrant field workers that don’t have very good jobs. I think there is a lot of room for improvement in our food system.

2. The details are extremely important.

There was one cringe-worthy moment in the Q&A when a 20-something-year-old girl asked Dr. Grandin what she thought about “toxins in animal feed” and “methane from cattle and global warming” and “pesticides in our crops”. She was very vague and Dr. Grandin pointed this out. This is when she reiterated that the details are important. I agree. This girl was made to look rather foolish. I think it’s unfortunate if you take this as an example of left-wing animal activists who get shut down when Dr. Grandin talks to them. The problem was not this girl’s concerns about agriculture or potential environmental effects. Rather, this girl hadn’t thought too hard about the details. When asked “what toxins?” by Dr. Grandin, she should have had a definite response. Like why are we using ractopamine in hog feed or why would anyone use Zilmax in their cattle?

In conclusion, let’s all try to remember that the truth is more than likely somewhere in the middle of two starkly opposed viewpoints. Vague conversations about our food system will not cut it and we all need to get more interested in the details.  It’s time-consuming and sometimes frustrating to do the necessary research to make sure you’re not missing the details. But in the long run, details are what will make the difference. I’m reminded of the apt phrase, “God is in the details.”


Are Parasites Plaguing Pastured Pigs?

Pigs Sugar Mountain Farm Pasture

©2007 Walter Jeffries, Sugar Mountain Farm

Here’s the story: Hogs were moved from being raised outdoors to being housed in temperature-controlled modern hog barns with about a thousand other hogs confined in pens for the welfare of the animal and safety of the product. No more harsh weather. No more parasites. So we’re told. Are parasites such a problem that we can’t safely raise hogs outdoors? Let’s find out.

One of the main concerns in pork is Trichinella spiralis which can cause disease in humans. I should note that currently only 0.013% of the U.S. swine herd is thought to be infected according to the CDC.

From the Pork Checkoff (pork.org):

The factors that have made U.S. pork safe with respect to Trichinella infection are all related to changes in production practices which eliminate these risks, including banning of uncooked waste feeding in all states and movement to confinement housing systems. Pork production in bio-secure housing systems with hygienic requirements for feed and feed storage and adequate rodent control drastically reduces the risk for exposure of pigs to Trichinella.”

From a 2001 report by the CDC: “The decrease in cases has mirrored the decline in prevalence of Trichinella in commercial pork products. In 1900, the trichinellosis prevalence in U.S. swine was estimated to be 1.41%. The estimated prevalence decreased to 0.125% during 1966–1970 and to 0.013% in 1995…Historically, the major sources of Trichinella-infected pork were swine fed garbage containing animal waste products…Other risk factors for Trichinella-infected pork include consumption by swine of small mammals infected with Trichinella, including rodents, raccoons, skunks, and opossums, and cannibalism among swine within an infected herd.”

So the mainstream story is that raising pigs outdoors means a greater likelihood of parasite infection and we need to continue the intensive barn confinement system to control the risk. But couldn’t this same decrease in likelihood of infection be achieved by knowledgeable pasture-based pig farmers? If we’re not feeding animal waste products to pastured pigs, then isn’t the only concern rodent & small mammal control? Do we really need confinement barns just to keep a few mice out? How many skunks are pigs eating out on the pasture? What if one single rodent gets into the confinement hog barn? It’s certainly possible. Mice manage to squeeze into households all the time. Let me propose that the primary reason for bringing hogs off the pasture and into the confinement barns has little to do with the safety of the pork products. Rather, confinement is only a tool to maximize production and minimize cost while reducing animal welfare and increasing environmental risk.

If you read this report by Intervet, Inc. (manufacturer of worming medication, apparently a division of Merck Pharmaceuticals) you’ll find out that parasites are a BIG problem in confinement operations. So much so that the reason for the report is to urge you to purchase their worming medications.

I’d like to share some quotes from a pastured pig farmer named Walter Jeffries who operates Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont with his wife Holly and the rest of the Jeffries family.

From Walter Jeffries:

Reality Check #1: Factory farms routinely use heavy doses of medications to kill off parasites. Simply ask them what wormers and other medications they use injected or in their feeds. It will scare you.

Reality Check #2: We pasture and do not need to routinely use medications, antibiotics or chemical wormers to kill of parasites or such in our pigs or other livestock. Instead we use managed rotational grazing and natural feeds to produce healthy animals. We have never had any problems with parasites in our meat. Our meat is a higher quality and healthier product because it is raised naturally and humanely on pasture. Consumers who care about the animals, quality and their own health buy from pastured farmers and avoid the factory farms.”

Conclusion: Is keeping pigs in indoor confinement one way to reduce exposure to Trichinella? It would appear so and the industry would certainly push this point. They’re obviously depending on the use of worming medications though. But is it the only way? Certainly not. Pastured pork can be very tasty and parasite-free. There is no need for intensive confinement pork. Pasture-based farmers like Walter & Holly Jeffries are proving that they can get the same results as the “biosecure” conventional hog barns but with a much more sustainable, humane and environmentally friendly operation. Why are conventional farmers giving worm medications to the “safer” confined hogs? Sure, there are other worms than Trichinella. But why do farmers need to give worm medications to a “biosecure” pig that is “safer” because of “confinement.” That’s a good question. I think it’s one the conventional industry does not want to answer. And remember, just cook your pork to at least 145° to kill trichinella!

Bonus Link: Here’s an interesting NY Times Op Ed piece from 2009 about Trichinella and pork.

Bonus Observation: There’s a lot of talk about “biosecurity” by factory farmers when referring to keeping hogs safe from disease. Yet, every time I watch a tour of a modern hog barn on YouTube (for example) I always see a farmer in plain clothes walk up to the feeder and sift their bare hands pretty deep into the actual feed. How is that “biosecure?”


A New Direction

Courtesy of Multimotyl

I preach a lot. I make my own conclusions and then I tell you about them with some facts and arguments along the way.

I think I’d like to take this blog in a different direction.

Synthesis of information. I like the sound of that for a new direction. I’d like to form a more cohesive presentation of farming practices that constitute the alternative to the current status quo. I’d also like to go more in-depth about why there is a competing vision. It’s tempting to hit the highs of your argument and preach about the conclusions. But I think it’s time I take things slower and examine individual issues more in-depth from as objective a position as I can muster (let’s all please remember that this is persuasive writing, but I’ll try to move as close to objective as possible).

I’d also like to see people comment! Discussion is amazing and it really helps people understand the issues and each other. I beg of you to comment on this blog as you see fit! Remember: a respectful conversation is the rule. You can disagree 100% with me but let’s keep it civil and make the discussion productive. 

New post arriving shortly… let’s see what happens.


What is “Moderation”?

You’ve all heard this line before: Everything is fine in moderation.

Seems harmless on the surface, until you realize it’s a very dangerous statement. The reason is that “everything” is too broad and “moderation” is ill-defined. The Oxford English Dictionary defines moderation like this:

“avoidance of excess or extremes in behaviour; temperateness, self-control, restraint.”

The problem is you can’t easily quantify moderation. Is a bag of Doritos once a week moderation? Or once a month? Once a year? The corporate food companies certainly will not quantify moderation. The reason…food companies don’t want any limits placed on how much of their product you can consume. The more bags of Doritos they sell you, the more money they make. There is no incentive for this company to tell you to restrain yourself to a certain number of Doritos. That’s why we hear the ubiquitous “everything is fine in moderation” mantra from the food companies. It’s a smoke and mirrors statement. It makes it seem like they care about your health but the statement is hollow.

Everything. What a word! The food companies certainly want to keep the definition of what you can eat in moderation as broad as possible. There is literally no other word that can mean anything more than everything.

McDonald’s, Burger King, cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, with bacon, super sized, potato chips, ice cream, cake, etc. It’s all fine according to the food companies…in moderation. What does moderation mean, you ask? You figure it out!

That’s the message from food companies. We’re not responsible for what we sell you. No matter what the costs are to your health and society. 


Why Do We Grow So Much Corn?

Courtesy of anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Field of Dreams…Field of Corn. Field of Corn Dreams. Children of the Corn? What?

Sometimes that’s how I feel when I ponder: Why do we grow so much corn? If you’ve ever driven in the midwest or more specifically Iowa then you must have noticed that corn is a big deal. This post is just a brief introduction. I’m planning on, over the next few weeks, writing more in depth about why we grow so much corn. I’ll focus on the individual categories of use and explore why corn is seemingly so important in our modern agriculture and diet. And why corn being king might not be in our collective best interest. Please check back for new posts!

In 2010, farmers planted (for all purposes) an estimated 89.7 million acres of corn. That amounts to about 332 million metric tons of corn. So what is it all for?

The breakdown of usage of the 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was as follows, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA.

5,525 million bu. – Livestock feed (42%)

4,500 million bu. – Ethanol production (34%)

1,950 million bu. – Exports (14%)

1,340 million bu. – Human Consumption (Production of starch, corn oil, sweeteners (HFCS, etc.), grits, corn flour, corn meal, beverage alcohol (10%)

We’re feeding most of our corn harvest to animals as feed. One might be wondering at this point why we would feed corn to a grazing animal like a cow. Good question. This is an interesting question that will certainly require a more in depth analysis.

Remember that guy Michael Pollan or the guys from King Corn? One message you can get from them is that a lot of the food we eat comes from corn. From Iowacorn.org’s FAQ section:

Actually, thousands of products in a typical supermarket contain corn. For many years, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has conducted surveys by sending researchers into a typical supermarket to read all the labels and tally all the products containing corn ingredients. The last CRA study found corn ingredients in almost 4,000 products – and that doesn’t count all the meat, dairy, and poultry products that depend on corn for livestock feed or the many paper products that don’t have ingredient labels but do contain corn.”

We’re also filling up our gas tanks with a lot of ethanol made from corn. Sure, it makes your gas 10 cents cheaper per gallon…but is it all good and no bad?

We’re also exporting quite a bit of our corn harvest. Why are we doing that and who is buying our corn? Right now, I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll be looking in to this.

One last thing.

I think this is an interesting question: where do we harvest the most corn in the U.S.? Here’s a map from the USDA.

This map shows that the majority of corn is harvested in the Midwest. Duh. I find it interesting that entire states are listed under “not estimated” which means their corn harvest amounts to a hill of beans.

Keep checking back for new posts!


I’m Not Sure What’s Next

I feel like a man standing on the edge of a beach looking up at the towering tsunami only 100 feet away.

I look at what people in America eat, how the food is produced and the obesity crisis and I see the tsunami. To be honest, I’m feeling powerless to affect the animal agriculture system. I think I have to resign that the popular opinion in America is “slaughter ’em quick and cheap and put it on my plate…yummy yummy yummy!”

I look around and no one seems willing to make tough choices in the face of corporate food pressure. People are happily consuming the animal products that are put out by the food corporations. Hardly anyone is putting up a stink. The corporate food world is a well oiled propaganda machine and us “consumers” seem to be their helpless victims.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute! Elliott, you can’t take your beating lying down. It’s so easy to feel discouraged when you feel like you’re one of a very small minority trying to do something very important. It’s important to figure out how to overcome that kind of adversity.

I really believe it’s people’s duty and responsibility to do SOMETHING — ANYTHING to change the way things are done. If that means Meatless Mondays, great! If that means being a vegetarian or a vegan, even better! If that means talking to your local politician, superb!

For me, at this point, I’ve chosen the path of trying my best to disengage from the corporate factory farming model. I don’t believe in it so I don’t participate in their game of who can produce the most meat for the cheapest price at any cost. Sorry Tyson, Farmland, McDonald’s or Applebee’s, you won’t be getting my business…

But these companies don’t even balk at people like me. McDonald’s sells about 550 million Big Macs every year…that’s about 17 a second. So, big deal…for one second of the year they only sold 16 Big Macs because I didn’t buy one this year. That’s really putting a dent in their quarterly earnings report and changing the way they do business…not.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that personal food choices are only going to go so far. It will take millions of people making the right choices every day to effect any real change. Does that mean I’m giving up in the face of the tsunami, absolutely not! But it does mean I’m exploring other fronts to fight this battle. I’ve written recently about how government intervention is necessary because the capitalist free market economy inevitably produces the food system we have today if it goes about its business unchecked.

I’m not sure what’s next. I’m not going to stop trying my best to make the right food choices every day and share my views with people. But I need to start getting more involved; putting more pressure on the system. I hope you’ll join me in my expedition to root out the problems, expose them to the light and expedite change.

Assignment: What’s your first step in this journey going to be? What’s your something going to be? Put that in to action, good for you! I guarantee once you take that first real earnest step…you’ll want to take more.