Farm Better and Feed the World…. Without Farmers?

Where's the beef...without ranchers?

Where’s the beef…without ranchers?

The New York Times is putting on a “Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World” conference in NY next month. This is a great idea – we all need to think more about our food choices and how we’re going to produce enough food to supply the population in 40 years time, when we’re predicted to have another 2-3 billion mouths to feed.

So just as a debate on the future of healthcare would include presentations from doctors and surgeons; or a discussion about how education could be improved would showcase teachers and lecturers; this conference is going to feature farmers, meat processors and animal and crop scientists, right?

No. Firstly, we have Michael Pollan, author and journalism professor, famous for the suggestion that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Looks like quinoa, gnocchi and beignets are off the lunch menu? When participating in a recent radio panel discussion with Mr. Pollan it was frightening to note how uninformed he appeared to be about the realities of livestock production versus the activist rhetoric (or indeed, the common courtesies of polite conversation).

Secondly, Danielle Nierenberg. I had the pleasure of being on a panel in Washington DC with Ms Nierenberg when she was still on-staff at HSUS. She was vehemently against the use of technology in livestock production and claimed that all housed or confined cattle were kept in filthy disease-ridden conditions. She further claimed that, contrary to the World Health Organization’s information on the topic, bird flu did not exist in small backyard poultry flocks in Asia and that biosecurity in large poultry operations was responsible for its spread.

Thirdly, a spokesman from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A pseudo-scientific organization that is opposed to so-called industrial agriculture, GMOs, antibiotic use in agriculture, agribusiness, the USDA nutrition guidelines…. the list goes on.

Amongst the remaining 14 speakers, there is a self-proclaimed activist, a chef, a politician, 3 reporters, 2 academics, and finally, two representatives from the retail sector – Panera Bread (known most recently for their “EZ-chicken” campaign which was rescinded after outrage amongst agricultural advocates) and Walmart. The sole representative of the farming community is an organic dairy producer with a herd of 85 Ayrshire cows from Wales.

I’m not suggesting that none of these people have valid opinions on how food should be produced – as consumers, we all do. However, the fact that conventional food producers and processors aren’t involved in the discussion makes me wonder whether this is simply an opportunity for those who most often criticize the current food system to shake each other’s hands, nod happily in agreement and make proclamations about how things “should be”, without discussing the practicality or feasibility of these solutions with those who farm the land and raise livestock every single day.

Almost inevitably, the conclusions coming out of this conference will be that you should reduce consumption of processed and conventionally-produced foods, and that if you are going to eat a small amount of meat, it should be organically-raised. That’s a beautiful shiny picture – I wonder what it will mean to the single mother trying to feed four children on a $10,000 salary; or the livestock producer who simply cannot make a living producing organic cattle?

Starvation isn’t sustainable for anybody – to feed the world in 2050 we need real solutions that improve crop and animal performance while reducing resource use. Solutions that are provided by farmers and ranchers working together with geneticists, nutritionists, consultants, veterinarians, crop scientists, soil scientists and meat scientists to improve the productivity of their farm.

To bastardize the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; give a man a panel of 17 food “experts” and you’ll feed him for…..?” Cynically, I’d suggest the answer may be less than one meal.

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Meatless Mondays.. or More Veg Mondays?

I consider myself to be an omnivore. I love meat – the smell of grilling beef or lamb turns me into a human version of Scooby Doo drooling and begging for a Scooby snack, and I’ve been known to arm-wrestle people for the last bratwurst. I love vegetables even more than meat – anyone examining my grocery-shopping list might conclude that I have an entire colony of rabbits to support with radishes, asparagus and zucchini, and I simply don’t understand those people who don’t find immense pleasure in eating “green stuff”. Given that the Meatless Mondays campaign apparently aims to “introduce consumers to the wide variety of healthy, delicious plant-based foods available”, you might think I’d be all over it like butter on a baked potato (be still my beating heart). Yet the very phrase causes my blood pressure to rise. Snacking on carrots, celery and olives in Delta Airlines’ Sky Lounges rather than buying deep-fried Taco Bell at the airport fills me with joy, but when I order a pizza, it’s always the vegetarian supreme…with added Italian sausage.

There it is – the added sausage. Meaty, spicy goodness that adds another layer of flavor to my pizza and that, as meat, I consider to be an essential component of my diet. In the US we are more food-centered than ever before – Facebook albums are titled “food porn” and chefs are celebrities. Yet we also seem to be moving towards a culture where individual foods or nutrients are demonized. “Fat-free” and “sugar-free” are marketing terms that imply that specific nutrients are undesirable in our diet; whole aisles are devoted to gluten-free foods despite the fact that celiac disease found in less than 1% of the population; and who doesn’t have a friend who is diligently avoiding carbs, dairy or red meat on “health grounds”? Why has our society evolved to the point where those who can afford the greatest variety of foods are the most likely to demand a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carbohydrate, macrobiotic diet as a mark of their elite status?*

Abstinence, whether on dietary or moral grounds, has always been synonymous with purity, sacrifice, and a certain level of sanctimoniousness. I am purer than you because I don’t give in to my dark desires for <<insert your sin of choice here>>. The Meatless Mondays campaign plays the abstinence hand beautifully – give up your selfish meat-eating habits for one day per week and you too can save the world by eating a bean burrito. The Humane Society of the United States inevitably supports the Meatless Mondays campaign, their comment (expressed verbatim in almost every press-release) being that it “helps spare animals from factory farms, helps our environment, and improves our health”. If “meatless” is the way forwards, meat must be an undesirable food and vegetarian diets must be healthier, just as fat-free Oreo cookies would be presumed to be a wiser nutritional choice than regular Oreos (interestingly, their calorie contents are almost identical). Yet the national carbon footprint would be reduced by less than half of one percent if everybody adopted Meatless Mondays for an entire year, and the propounded effects of meat consumption on health have not been borne out by science.

When a school district or college campus adopts the Meatless Mondays campaign, I don’t hear the buzz of black helicopters and see the hand of Wayne Pacelle on the throttle. However, I am deeply disappointed that a campaign demonizing meat consumption, suggesting that eating a hamburger is comparable to the environmental equivalent of driving at 120 mph in a Hummer or the health effects of smoking 20 cigarettes per day, is considered by so many to be a positive move forwards in feeding a hungry world. I am not suggesting that we should all eat a 16 oz T-bone steak for every meal, or that vegetarianism or veganism are not valid dietary choices. Indeed, I propose that meat-eaters be afforded the same courtesy as vegetarians or vegans – to choose foods according to their individual or religious beliefs.

So what is the future for Meatless Mondays? It’s very simple. If this campaign really aims to expose people to a wider range of vegetables and plant-based food choices, let’s simply christen it “More Veg Mondays”. Have an extra helping of broccoli with your steak, try eggplant parmegana alongside your hotdog, or replace crackers with raw celery and radishes. Rather than demonizing individual foods, let’s celebrate the fabulous variety of choices that are available to us and that allow us the opportunity to eat a balanced diet every single day. Ironically, yesterday my Monday was almost meatless – I spent the day traveling and subsisting on dried mango, chocolate-covered coffee beans and vitamin water in Chilean airports. However, I made up for it once I reached Córdoba – the Iberian ham on my pizza was the best I ever tasted, and made better by the rocket, tomatoes and olives that accompanied it (see picture above). Eat more vegetables? In an instant. Give up meat on Mondays? As Charlton Heston would say: only when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

*Please note that I do not include those who have demonstrable food allergies in this group

“Humane” Becomes Synonymous with Agenda-Driven Marketing

Over the past few years, certain words have evolved to invoke an involuntary shudder that I cannot suppress. “Sustainability” is first on the list (painfully ironic given that it’s the focus of my entire professional output), as it has so many definitions that it has become almost meaningless. Second place is reserved for “humane” when applied to livestock systems as a marketing term.

Raising animals humanely is an excellent concept; indeed it’s so important that it is already a key focus of the entire beef industry, not simply a niche market of accredited suppliers. National programs such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) exist to demonstrate to consumers that cattle are managed correctly. Indeed, recent surveys show that although the majority of large producers are familiar with BQA, even those that aren’t consider the various management practices involved to be important. When I asked a rancher friend how he defined “humanely-raised animals”, he emailed back with:

“To me, humanely-raised animals are provided adequate, balanced nutrition, water, veterinary care and shelter from extreme weather.”

So, we’re all on the same page…right?

Apparently not. In apparent despair at the “self-regulation” performed by the beef industry, Bon Appetit have announced that they will only buy “humanely-raised” meat; sourcing all their loose ground beef and beef patties from suppliers who meet strict animal welfare standards. So who’s defining “humanely-raised” for Bon Appetit? Four independent animal welfare organizations: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Food Alliance (FA, my abbreviation), Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, my abbreviation) and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). Bon Appetit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio is cited as wanting to change conventional and/or large-scale beef production practices, yet representatives from conventional beef production are missing from the Board of Directors of all four organizations. Instead, Bon Appetit has a seat on the board of both FA and HFAC, and both GAP and HFAC have representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on their boards*.

Without wanting to elevate the omnipotent fear of circling black helicopters still further, independent is an interesting descriptor for these groups as none of them could be considered agenda-free with regards to conventional beef production. Their management standards** certainly lead to some interesting welfare considerations. For example, producers on stage 5 of GAP’s program for beef must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals. I imagine the presumed welfare advantages of not performing these physical alterations will be of great comfort to those trying to corral intact, horned 1,300 lb bulls if they escape from their pasture onto the road. Feedlots are prohibited by AWA’s standards – indeed, AWA are such a friend of conventional production that they even find time to try to debunk the science regarding corn-fed and grass-fed beef production with “we all know…” claims.

Perhaps most alarming are the various attitudes towards pharmaceutical products. AWA states that homeopathic, herbal or other non-antibiotic alternatives are preferred for the treatment of disease, although with the caveat that should they not prove effective, antibiotics may be used. If effective non-antibiotic treatments existed, given the tight margins in beef production, wouldn’t we already be using them? Furthermore, for how long should we try and treat a dehydrated, diarrhea-coated, coccidiosis-infected calf with fairy dust and rainbows before we use an anticoccidial drug? FA states that an animal cannot be sold under the accreditation program if it has received antibiotics within 100 days of slaughter (farewell accreditation premium!) and GAP prohibits therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores, or sulfa drugs for market animals. If disease occurs, the producer is economically penalized either way – by removing the animal from the program or by having an untreated sick animal picked out by the buyer. It appears that philosophical ideals and marketing hyperbole may triumph over management practices that are humane by any standards – providing appropriate, effective care to a sick animal.

If Bon Appetit’s aim is to change (improve?) practices throughout the beef industry, the logical strategy would be to listen to and work directly with the farmers and ranchers who produce the majority of the nation’s beef, by interacting with the check-off programs. By catering to production systems that prohibit management practices that enable us to raise safe, affordable, environmentally-sustainable beef, and discourage effective veterinary treatment of sick animals, “humane raising” is anything but.

*Animal Welfare Approved BoardCertified Humane Board; Food Alliance Board; Global Animal Partnership Board 

**Animal Welfare Approved StandardsCertified Humane Standards; Food Alliance Standards; Global Animal Partnership Standards

If Food is the New Religion, Who is the New Messiah?

During the last census in England, there was a social media campaign to persuade people who did not identify with a particular religion, to state “Jedi Knight” in the “religious persuasion” section of the forms. If enough people cited it, it would be officially considered as a religion.

The campaign failed, yet the picture at the top left made me think – just how many people would consider food or “foodieism” to be their religion nowadays? If we consider the concept of “faith” (definition: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something; strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”), the church sign above appears to explain the behaviors of those who are opposed to specific food production systems or management practices. We can have conversations with the nay-sayers face-to-face, on social media, or even through NY Times competitions, yet if foodieism is a religion, are we wasting our time trying to change their minds with facts?

Fortunately, recent survey data suggests that 94% of consumers buy food on the basis of price, taste and nutrition; 4.4% buy according to lifestyle choices (e.g. organic, vegetarian, local) and only 1.7% are a “fringe” group who wish to prohibit management practices or technologies that have helped us make continuous improvements in food production over the years. Nonetheless, consumers within this small group are extremely vocal, skilled at influencing media and legislation and are devoted to advancing their cause.

Just ask any politician – we can make huge headway influencing the masses in the middle rather than spending time trying to convince a small group to believe in a cause that they are already opposed to. The question is, how do we do so, and how much should we spend time counteracting negative publicity rather than being proactive about food production? If we take the recent lean finely textured beef (LFTB aka. “pink slime”) furor as an example, how many consumers were made aware of the issue not because of negative publicity generated by the media, but because of the huge amount of pushback from our industry via social media? At what point does it make more sense to stay quiet and concentrate our efforts on other issues where we have a chance to move public opinion, rather than fighting losing battles?

Finally, if foodieism is the new religion, who is the new messiah? Michael Pollan, journalism professor preaching food rules and the omnivore’s dilemma? Joel Salatin, wild-eyed prophet of “herbivorous, mob-stocking, solar converting, lignified carbon sequestering, grass-based” systems? Or perhaps Wayne Pacelle, sharp-suited smooth-talker from HSUS? Are PETA billboards and demonstrations the forerunners of foodie door-to-door evangelism? Only time will tell.

Would you like a side of corpse with your meal, Sir?

I was interested to see the following description of Hitler’s* (*see disclaimer below) behavior in a recent Drover’s article:

…[Hitler] was offered a piece of ham and refused, saying “it is like eating a corpse.”

Is it me, or is that remarkably similar language to that used by PETA and HSUS? Before somebody opens a can of Godwin’s Law whoop-ass, I’d like to point out that I’m not trying to prove my point by referring everything I don’t agree with back to Nazism (although it’s a popular way for internet trolls to try to end arguments), nor am I comparing PETA and HSUS to Hitler. After all, PETA are inherently amusing – without PETA we wouldn’t see so many pictures of Pamela Anderson or marvel at the faux-pornographic inventiveness of “Milk Gone Wild“, let alone snigger at their attempts to get Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast milk. However, I can imagine this a headline in the National Enquirer: “Animal Rights Groups Use Hitler Soundbites” – could be a PR nightmare (take note PETA publicity dept)

Still, it’s interesting that simple words can evoke such a violent reaction. As an unrepentant omnivore, I’m well aware that the meat that I eat originates from animals that have been slaughtered (yes, slaughtered – carrots are harvested, animals are slaughtered) in order to provide human food. Therefore according to the definition of a corpse “A dead body, esp. of a human being rather than an animal”, the juicy burger I’m planning to eat for lunch is a 1/4 lb patty of flesh from the corpse of a cow. What is it about human frailties that such a definition instantly makes me feel like Jeffrey Dahmer, whereas “meat” sounds tasty and innocuous like something grown on a tree in a sunlit California valley?

In high school, my friends and I eschewed meat for animal welfare reasons, horrified by the vivisection pictures prominently displayed by the animal rights activists at the local mall. Yet once we grew out of the teenage rebellion stage, these issues seemed to be less important: during my 12-month vegan stint (aged 15) over half the girls in my high-school class were vegetarian, yet my college class contained less than five vegetarians and I only have two in my current circle of friends. If we took children on tours of slaughterhouses as well as farms and museums would the number of adult vegetarians increase? Or would the fact that meat generally appeals to the human palate overcome those images?

The vast majority of farm animals are well cared for and slaughtered in a humane manner in accordance with the regulations applicable to that region. Yet continuing to disguise the facts of food production by replacing “slaughter” with “harvest” (I’ve been rebuked several times by industry colleagues for refusing to use “harvest”) and playing into the consumer fantasy that meat is produced without death occurring may lead us into dangerous waters in future. So are we ready to pick up a package of ground beef flesh and to baste the Christmas turkey corpse? Its unlikely…but it sure would take the wind out of the PETA and HSUS sails wouldn’t it?

*If the name Hitler instantly ticks your “Alert! Cheap rhetoric!” button, feel free to replace with Idi Amin, Pol Pot or “small angry fanatic with ridiculous moustache”