Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm Vegetari-ish

I love CBC Radio. I said it the other day, and I'll repeat it in print: In the ordered list of government services that I would give up, CBC outlives snowplowing the roads.

Here's something great: (link to CBC archive)
CBC Radio, Ideas (Aug.18th, Aug.25th, Sept.1)
Have Your Meat And Eat It To
By freelance broadcaster Jill Eisen

Food production, and how my food purchases are a vote is something that has increasingly interested me over the last couple of years. Don't get me wrong, I like eating meat, and I don't mind killing, but at torture, I think I draw the line. The fact is, that most of us are balefully ignorant about the effect we have on the world every time we make a purchase. I'm convinced that your daily vote-by-purchase has a much more profound effect then your vote at the Provincial and Federal level. And consequently, I'd like to know what my vote has been supporting.

I listened to Part1, and thought: "Very interesting. Well balanced. This is a tricky problem." Then I got into Part2 and thought: "Whoa, this PETA guy is pushing the limits." He's the sort that makes a strong statement as if it is undisputed fact, when it is actually opinion. Try to keep an open mind. The genius of the broadcast is that he's eventually followed by an ex-Vegan who although less evangelical, is also pushing limits in the opposite direction. Her conjecture that the health difference between hunter-gatherers and early sedentary societies is solely due to diet is absurd. Read some Guns Germs and Steel for a good look into that time period. Anyway, by the time I got to Part3 which isn't only well balanced, but also offers a host of positive and immediate solutions, I was so blow away the be broadcast that I started taking noted. The quotes below are paraphrased.

Let's start with some strong statements:

In Canada and in the United states, the legal protections for Dogs or Cats don't apply to Chickens or Pigs and other farm animals. Factory Farm animals are routinely mutilated without pain relief. Every moment of these animals lives are categorized by unmitigated misery.

It takes twenty calories into a pig or a chicken or a cow to get one one calorie back out in the form of meat. I would never go to my refrigerator and dump nineteen plates of pasta in the trash, but that's basically what you're doing when you consume animal products. As somebody that was trying to walk more lightly on the earth, thinking about consuming so gluttonously while other people were starving to death didn't sit well with me.

Now lets be reasonable. Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of "Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms." goes on to say some of the smartest things I've ever heard. She demonstrates that her farmland is not suitable for crop production, but is suitable for livestock grazing. It is consequently wasteful to not use the land for livestock, hence blowing away the 20:1 calorie ratio. P.S. She's a rancher who is a vegetarian who was a lawyer.

Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." is even better. Here's some good stuff:

I think that sustainable animal protein has a place in really developing a truly sustainable agriculture.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, one third of all arable land is devoted to growing crops for animals.

A food chain in which the sunlight feeds the grasses, the grasses feed the ruminants and the ruminants feed us is actually a very sustainable way to grow food.

To argue for meat eating under these very narrow circumstances, from happy farms, where animals live good lives and their waste is managed properly and they're contributing to an ecosystem approach to growing food is to say you're going to eat a lot less meat.

Meat eating was a special occasion in most households for many years.

I would argue that paying a dollar or two is probably what an egg should cost.

It's very convenient to have a long, complex food-chain where you don't have to look at the whole system and you just see the nice shrink-wrapped packaged meat. People are very happy to not deal with all the issues involved.

When I published "The Omnivore's Delima", I heard from two kinds of people, some said "I read your book and I stopped eating meat", which I found very interesting because I researched the book and I didn't stop eating meat. I changed the kind of meat I eat, but then I heard from vegetarians who said "I read your book and I started eating meat again."

In these best of all possible farms, the animals, as the farmers like to say "have one bad day". And of course we all have that bad day. Death is just a fact of life.

If you standard is about ecological sustainability, you will find yourself coming out for a limited form of animal agriculture. If your framework is moral philosophy you can construct arguments that take you to a place where it's very hard to justify meat production.

Fred Kirschenmann says some great stuff:

We should be eating with respect.

One sixth of the world's population is going hungry in the modern food system. It's partly because we've decided that we're going to feed everybody in the world from raising corn and soy beans in Iowa. And it's not working.

How many humans can a healthy ecology sustain. We are part of a biological system. We have to come to terms with how many humans are appropriate for the carrying capacity of the planet. It's probably going to be more like three or four billion. Somewhere we have to figure out how to bring our population explosion under control. We know part of the answer. We know that if you empower women, it starts to move in that direction.

Now for the ex-Vegan. She's awesome, but pushes her claims a little too far:

People used to eat things like bacon and eggs for breakfast and diabetes was not an epidemic. Now they're eating highly processed cereal (which is just sugar) with low-fat milk (which is just more sugar), and we've got this whole crop of kids now who are going to die of blood sugar problems.

The thing about being a vegan, it's not just what you eat, it becomes what you are. It becomes this tightly held identity, and that makes it really hard to engage with new information that threatens that identity. The only thing that really made me give it up was when my health failed catastrophically.

Her story runs contrary to a whole host of studies claiming that a vegetarian diet is at least has healthy if not healthier than a meat eating diet.

The thing about people who undertake a vegetarian lifestyle, they do a whole bunch of things, any of which would absolutely create a healthier life, for instance they don't smoke as much as the rest of the population. So there is a whole range of lifestyle factors that are hard to separate out.

The best cohort studies on this compare Seventh Day Adventists to Mormons. The average Adventist lives seven years longer than the average American. They tend to be vegetarian, eat less donuts, eat less processed foods, don't smoke, don't drink alcohol and don't drink coffee. So it's not a fair comparison. But the Mormons also don't smoke or drink but do eat meat, and the Mormons live longer than the Adventists.

More from Michael Pollan:

I have deep respect for vegetarians, for the reason that (unlike most people) they have thought through the consequences of their food choices. They have made a decision so that their choices reflect their values. And they're acting on that. In a sense, that's what everybody should do. I did that too, and I came out in a different place.

There's a world if difference between a grass-fed steak and a feed-lot steak. They are very different products. They have different fats. They have different pharmaceuticals.

You can point to populations that eat a heavy meat diet who are incredibly healthy, the Masai Warriors for example or the Inuit. Is it the same kind of animal protein that we eat? Well no, because those animal have a very different diet than our animals.

Cutting down on meat is pretty unambiguously a good move if you're eating that nine ounces of it a day.

In Part3 we start with fear, but then wow, the hope:

Almost all the meat and eggs you'll find on supermarket shelves comes from factory farms or feed-lots. Factory farms are blamed for everything from cruelty to animals to human illness to environmental destruction.

In 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report called "Livestock's Long Shadow". It claimed that animal agriculture was responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gasses. That's more than all the world's transportation systems put together.

The notion that somehow, by taking animals out of the food-system that we're going to solve our environmental problems, my response to that is: give me an example of a single ecology that is healthy without animals in it.

Until the 1950s, most farms in North America were mixed with both crops and animals. The animals ate the farm's grasses and crop wastes and returned vital nutrients to the soil. Governments encouraged Farmers to specialize.

The energy source for virtually all of agriculture now is fossil fuels. All of our fertilizers are based on fossil fuels. All of our pesticides are fossil fuel based. Our farm equipment is manufactured and operated with fossil fuels.

We can't just think anymore about not doing any ecological damage. We need to start thinking about ecological restoration.

What would a sustainable system of the future look like? What we have to work on now are systems based on biological synergies where the waste of one animal species becomes food for another. In all of our systems now, there should be no waste.

Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia

Polyface Farm's design is all about symbiosis, between the chickens and the pigs, the rabbits and the chickens, the pigs and the cows.

It allows us to then give the pigs valuable work to do and allow them to be in a niche that allows them to fully express their pigness. If we have a culture that just views these animals and plants as just inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it, we will begin viewing our citizens the same way and other cultures the same way. It's how we respect an honour the pigness of the pig, the least of these, that creates an ethical/moral framework on which we respect and honour the greatest of these.

What we see with large herds of herbivores is that they're moving and they're mowing. They're not eating dead cows or chicken manure or dead chickens or fermented forage or silage or grain.

How does nature sanitize behind those cows? Before Merck Pharmaceuticals and Pfizer developed grubicides and paracides, we find birds. So we follow the herbivores with the egg-mobiles.

Grass is a perennial. So it doesn't have to be plowed or planted or seeded. Grass takes solar energy and converts it into biomass (carbonaceous material). Grass has its infant stage where growth is slow, then a juvenile growth spurt, then Senescence (later life). What we want to do is ensure that those plants go through the growth spurt as often as possible because that's when they're fixing in time way more carbon than in their infant or elder stages. So we manage the cows with electric fence to allow the grass to always go through the growth spurt.

All plants want to maintain bilateral symmetry at the soil horizon. They want to have as much weight above the ground as they have below the ground. So when the cow grazes the grass, the roots sluff off an equivalent amount of root mass to create bilateral symmetry.

If we move the cows every day it greatly accelerates the amount of energy that can be converted to carbon both above ground and in the root structure. If everybody in North America who had cows would practice this model, then in fewer in ten years, we would sequester all the carbon that's been emitted since the beginning of the industrial age.

Instead, we're feeding cows corn, that's an annual, that needs tillage and petroleum, that doesn't go through the same cycle that grass does. We've got feed-lots where instead of fertilizing the grass they ate, the manure is becoming a toxic problem in an area too small to handle it.

More from Michael Pollan who spent a week at Polyface Farm:

What's astounding is that there is not only eggs, chicken and beef produced, but the land has actually been improved by this agriculture in ways that you can measure. There is more topsoil. There is more biodiversity. There is more fertility in the soil.

What this kind of grass-fed beef and chicken operation shows is that there is a way to get what we want and at the same time contribute in a positive way to nature.

Why does over 95% of the meat and eggs we eat come from Factory Farms? It is important to understand that this industrial meat system survives because the Government supports it.

[1] The feed-lot owner can buy subsidized grain for less than the cost of production. This is what has driven animals to feed-lots and off of farms.

[2] We do not enforce environmental laws on feed-lots. We treat them as farms instead of as factories.

[3] We allow feed-lots to administer antibiotics on a routine basis in the feed.

If we took away these three supports, you realize that this is not an industry survives in the free market. It is the product of this government support.

And to wrap it up, some farmers and a cook:

Currently, two corporations control over 80% of all the Beef slaughtered in Canada, and four control 72% of the hogs. The meat packer is interested in two things: how much marbling is in the meat, and how much meat to bone. They're pushed hard by the grocery stores. The grocery stores are pushed hard by Walmart. The only way farmers can survive is to grow bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper.

We look at the resources that occur on our farm, and try to turn those resources into as much beef as we can. But we can't survive doing it that way if all we're getting is the scale price paid across the auction block. We are not highly productive, make no mistake. We look at how many pounds of beef can that grass support sustainably.

The only way to survive is to sell directly to consumers. But you need a good marketer, an it's a completely different set of skills than farming. Government policy makes it more difficult. They're closing down abattoirs and imposing prohibitively expensive regulations. If you're producing six steers a week, but the abattoir only takes ten thousand steers at a time, where are your steers going to go? So the farmer is put out of business.

Can alternative food production feed the world? When you look at a big Tyson confinement house, and they say "look at how many chickens we're growing in such a small space", what they don't show you is how many hundreds of acres of grain are being brought in to feed that house.

The average North American consumes more than half a pound of meat a day.

The main reason that prices of alternative meat productions are higher is that government regulations don't scale. They reward large size and discriminate against small size. And grass-fed doesn't take government subsidies (whereas feed-lots are heavily subsidized). As grass-fed production becomes more normal, there will be an economizing of the infrastructure that we depend on, and as that happens, price can come down.

Only 20% of food expenditure goes back to the farmer. The 80% is the store and transpiration and packaging and advertising.

We need eaters who have re-discovered their kitchens. There is a new movement called nose-to-tail eating. If we're going to kill an animal, we need to eat every part of it.

Thank you CBC Radio and Jill Eisen. I love a well balanced, honest, non-judgemental source of information. Keep up the good work.

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