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Seeking A Saner Food System, Three Times A Day

July 31, 2014 2:54 PM ET
Not all cows get to spend their days with soft green grass under hoof. For many, the picture isn't so pretty, according to the book Farmageddon.

Not all cows get to spend their days with soft green grass under hoof. For many, the picture isn’t so pretty, according to the book Farmageddon.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“For Philip Lymbery, head of the U.K.-based Compassion in World Farming and his co-author Isabel Oakeshott, a visit to California’s Central Valley amounted to an encounter with suffering.

In Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, Lymbery and Oakeshott write that the mega-dairies of the Central Valley are “milk factories where animals are just machines that rapidly break down and are replaced.” At one huge dairy they visited, cows stood idly outdoors, some in shade and some in the sun. No grass cushioned their feet and certainly none was available to eat since, like almost all factory-farm cows, the animals were maintained on an unnatural diet of crops such as corn. The stench in the air was “a nauseous reek.”

The True Cost of Cheap Meat
by Philip Lymbery

This same scene was repeated “every couple of kilometres, all with several thousand cows surrounded by mud, corrugated iron and concrete.”

The hurt in Central Valley extends beyond cows to humans.

The 1.75 million cows in California generate, according to Lymbery and Oakeshott, more fecal waste than the human population of the U.K. Most of the waste matter flows to lagoons near the farms. But some escapes into the air as gas and into the ground (and water supply) through seepage. Water and air pollution, linked in part to the mega-dairies, is an immense worry for residents of the Central Valley, where, the authors report, children have a rate of asthma nearly three times above the national average and adult life expectancies are lower by up to a decade than the national average.

Similar disastrous circumstances surround mega-piggeries and industrial chicken farms in the U.S. And when those animals are turned into meat, there’s enormous wastage. The single saddest statistic I have read in the realm of animal welfare comes fromFarmageddon: the amount of meat discarded globally each year is equivalent to 11.6 billion chickens or 270 million pigs or 59 million cattle.

Lymbery and Oakeshott’s answer to “Well, what can we do?” hit home for me. Positive change is in our hands, they insist. In the U.K. where they live, the scale of industrial agriculture is not yet huge and, even in countries like the U.S. where it is huge, there’s hope. They write:

“Avoiding Farmageddon is easy as long as we buy products from animals reared on the land (free-range, organic), favour local producers or retailers that we trust, eat what we buy and therefore reduce food waste, and avoid overeating meat, we can fill our plates in ways that benefit the countryside, our health and animal welfare.”

“Easy” sounds too Pollyanna-ish to my ears, but I did love the mantra adopted in the book:

“Each of us has three great opportunities a day to help make a kinder, saner food system through the [meal] choices we make.”

It’s a simple yet powerful message: At every breakfast, lunch and dinner, we make food choices that move us either toward a saner food system or further away.

My review of Farmageddon, published last week in the Times Literary Supplement, was positive. Even so, I gave Lymbery and Oakeshott a bit of a hard time for avoiding the topic of vegetarianism.

No, I’m not suggesting that everyone become vegetarian (or vegan) or that people who don’t are somehow morally inferior. Though I don’t eat cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs, goats or cephalopods like the octopus, I do eat fish on occasion and I have recently sampled insect cuisine (cricket cookies and grasshopper tacos). I’m no purist on this topic.

And I remember from last year Tania’s “can’t we all just get along?” post: none of us benefits by judging others’ food habits (or worrying excessively that others are judging ours).

Still, in a book that tackles how we might eat smarter for the environment, for other animals, and for ourselves, I think it’s too timid to stop at “eat less meat” and not discuss the “eat no meat” option.

And what about “eat no fish”? On this topic, Farmageddon has something thought-provoking to say, as I noted in my TLS review:

“‘Fish farms are the forgotten factory farms under the water’, according to Lymbery, ‘and one of the fastest-growing sectors of intensive animal rearing.’ Cataracts and fish and tail injuries plague the farmed salmon and trout confined in tiny spaces. Around the world, about 100 billion fish are farmed every year, a number that exceeds all the terrestrial farm animals put together.”

“The result of all this effort is bleak: consumers eat fatty, chemical-laden fish, and the farmed fish, when they escape (Lymbery describes ‘mass breakouts’), harm the wild fish stocks, through competition for food and places to spawn, and outright cannibalism.”

About my pescatarian diet, and the type of fish I choose now and again for lunch or dinner, I’m thinking twice.

And three times.


Barbara’s most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter:”

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US Fails in Attempt to Distance Itself from UK Snowden File Destruction

US Fails in Attempt to Distance Itself from UK Snowden File Destruction

What? The NSA lying? No, never…

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Halve meat consumption, scientists urge rich world

Beef carcasses at a wholesale meat market in Paris

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Beef carcasses at a wholesale meat market in Paris. The quest for ever cheaper meat has ’caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health’, a UN report says. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP
 
 

People in the rich world should become “demitarians” – eating half as much meat as usual, while stopping short of giving it up – in order to avoid severe environmental damage, scientists have urged, in the clearest picture yet of how farming practices are destroying the natural world.

They said the horsemeat scandal had uncovered the dark side of our lust for meat, which has fuelled a trade in undocumented livestock and mislabelled cheap ready meals. “There is a food chain risk,” said Prof Mark Sutton, who coined the term demitarian and is lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday. “Now is a good time to talk to people about this.”

The quest for ever cheaper meat in the past few decades – most people even in rich countries ate significantly less meat one and two generations ago – has resulted in a massive expansion of intensively farmed livestock. This has diverted vast quantities of grain from human to animal consumption, requiring intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and, according to the Unep report, “caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health”. The run-off from these chemicals is creating dead zones in the seas, causing toxic algal blooms and killing fish, while some are threatening bees, amphibians and sensitive ecosystems. “The attention this meat scare has drawn [highlights] poor quality meat. It shows society must think about livestock and food choices much more, for the environment and health,” said Sutton.

The answer, Sutton said, was more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. “Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he urged. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.'”

By filling plates with vegetables as well as the meat, people will be better nourished. “Most people don’t notice,” he said, citing a recent UN event at which the chef used a third the amount of meat, more vegetables to make up for it, and more than 90% of guests were just as satisfied.

Sutton was speaking about the rich west, the US and Europe in particular. He wants the change in diet to be pioneered in Europe, as the US will be a tougher nut to crack. The UN scientists said people in poor countries should be allowed to increase their consumption of animal protein, which billions of people are lacking. But if that is so as not to cause environmental harm, the move to meat in the developing world must be balanced with a reduction in the amount consumed in developed countries.

Chicken and pork are likely to be the meats that cause less environmental damage in relative terms, though standards of welfare and the circumstances in which livestock are raised can make a big difference. “Chicken is one of the most efficient [meats] as it grows very quickly and you can collect the manure,” said Sutton. Meat production accounts for 80% of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in farming, according to the Unep report, entitled Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. These nutrients are produced at great expense globally, but most of them end up wasted through the animals’ manure. In some areas of the world, the nutrients are in short supply, resulting in lower crop yields.

Unep warned: “Unless action is taken, increases in pollution and per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity.”

The report also set out a variety of measures by which farming could be made more environmentally friendly, from simple steps such as storing fertilisers more securely and using them more sparingly, and capturing greenhouse gas emissions from their production. Nitrogen use could be cut by 20m tonnes by 2020, saving £110bn a year. Reusing waste, such as manure, and treating sewage using modern methods would also save hundreds of billions.”

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February 20, 2013 · 9:01 pm

Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 January 2013 05.14 EST
 
Bolivian woman harvesting Quinoa

“A Bolivian woman harvesting quinoa negro. ‘Well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here [are] unwittingly driving poverty there.’ Photograph: George Steinmetz/Corbis

Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. We struggled to pronounce it (it’s keen-wa, not qui-no-a), yet it was feted by food lovers as a novel addition to the familiar ranks of couscous and rice. Dieticians clucked over quinoa approvingly because it ticked the low-fat box and fitted in with government healthy eating advice to “base your meals on starchy foods”.

Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.

Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the “miracle grain of the Andes”, a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and “royal” types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grainhas pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It’s beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country’s food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That’s the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.

Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe’s biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.

In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.

There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.

• This footnote was appended on 17 January 2013. To clarify: while soya is found in a variety of health products, the majority of production – 97% according to the UN report of 2006 – is used for animal feed.”

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January 19, 2013 · 10:43 pm