The Call, Column 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at http://blueskysfarm.com/. As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at http://aquidneckfarms.com/.

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

Advertisements




The Call, Column 44 – “For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

10 04 2016

(April 10, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

            Today, we’re going to discuss a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past year: the nutritional, ecological, and ethical arguments in favor of eating animals.

First, here’s a little background. As some of you know, or may have guessed, I follow a dietary framework called the Paleo Diet, which enthusiastically involves moderate levels of animal consumption. I’ll talk about it more in the future, but needless to say, this has ironically led me to the dark corners of the internet, where the arguments against any and all consumption of animal products are given a pretty elevated platform.

To start, I have the utmost respect for the pure form of ethical vegetarianism and veganism, which is based on an objection to factory farmed animal products. A distinction has to be made between advocates of “animal welfare” – the goal of producing the highest quality of life for our animals – and those of “animal rights” – extending human rights (to life, freedom, etc) to animals, a goal that is inherently hostile to any form of animal agriculture. I have friends and family in the first group, who abstain from animal products as a hugely effective way to protest factory farming.

Not only am I not writing this to question their beliefs, but it is actually more in line with their central goal than opposed. Rather, it’s written in response to those perpetuating the ridiculous and offensively-named “animal rights abolitionism” – the use of government regulation to stop other people from utilizing animals for any purpose, including as pets – and somehow tying it to the largely unscientific environmental and human health arguments against animal consumption.

I don’t care that they believe this – that’s their own prerogative. But this “Triumvirate” of arguments is presented to the public as self-evident fact, and inflammatory opinion-piece films are made to disseminate it. Their false dogma is squarely wrong, but has somehow become the official position of polite society. And I want to do my part to combat that.

For Human Health

            Everyone agrees that non-starchy vegetables and lower-sugar fruits should make up a significant part of our daily calories. Specific numbers don’t matter much, but together with healthy plant fats, that leaves maybe 40 or 50% of caloric needs unaccounted for. We have to get that from some mix of animal foods (meat, milk, eggs) and plant foods (grains and legumes). The Triumvirate would have you believe that this should come mostly from the nutrient-poor sugars in grains and legumes (and low-fat dairy). The best science increasingly says the opposite.

In case you haven’t heard, dietary cholesterol has been exonerated as a cause for heart disease. Cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for brain function, hormone production, and the creation of new cells, which is why our livers synthesize so much of it. But, because we are well-adapted to eating animals, they happily produce less when it can be obtained from our diet; this means that consumption of cholesterol generally has no effect on blood cholesterol levels.

It isn’t even cholesterol that clogs arteries, but damaged lipoproteins (“oxidized LDL cholesterol”) which actually truck cholesterol around our bodies to where it is needed. The net effect of animal fats is to slightly raise LDL levels but actually protect them from becoming damaged/oxidized, while the net effect of concentrated sugars and starches is to accelerate the damage! Together, the nutrient-shaming of cholesterol and saturated fat are the basis upon which the Triumvirate argues against animal consumption; thankfully, that foundation has been destroyed by actual science, and the recommendations are slowly changing.

What’s more, we are “obligate omnivores” – there are nutrients that our bodies require in order to function properly, whose only or most practical source is plants (for some of them), and animals (for others). The required nutrients from animal products include Vitamins B12, K2, D, and preformed A, heme iron, zinc, and other minerals, appropriate forms of omega 3 fats, and complete protein (read more about this on The Paleo Mom’s site, http://tinyurl.com/hevowep).

Indeed, our species has eaten significant amounts of animal products for at least 2.6 million years (about 50% of calories prior to the dawn of agriculture), and have never suffered chronic diseases like the past five decades, which has been coupled with a decrease in overall consumption. As I’ve argued extensively in the recent past, the scientific basis of anti-meat nutritional recommendations is so shaky, it isn’t worth denying our own biology. Animal products are not only not bad for us, but necessary for human health.

Strike one.

For the Environment

            My analysis of this shouldn’t surprise you. Industrial animal agriculture is bad for the environment. But so is industrial plant agriculture. In fact, this is so because animal agriculture unnecessarily relies on resource-intensive monocultures of grains and legumes.

Industrial agriculture is bad for the environment. It uses a lot of fresh water, consumes a lot of energy, releases a lot of greenhouse gases, and causes a lot of localized pollution. But this isn’t inherent to animal agriculture, or plant agriculture for that matter. And that is where the advocacy community loses some of us holistic, systems-minded folks.

People need to eat. And there are a lot of us. Therefore, we must do agriculture. But we also need a properly-functioning planet to live on. So a major challenge of the 21st century is to find ways to do agriculture well, that are also good for the planet. Enter: Regenerative Agriculture.

Without going into too much detail, independent scientists and agriculturalists have constructed a toolbox of agricultural methods, collectively called “Regenerative Agriculture”, which rival the efficiencies of industrial agriculture but do so in ways that actually help the environment. Taking cues from nature – which is full of pastures, forests, and animals, but curiously not grain monocultures – pioneers like Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and many ambitious farmers have formulated three important agricultural practices: non-intensive plant agriculture and permaculture (topics for future discussion), and today’s highlight, rotationally-grazed livestock.

Grass-eating animals (ruminants) are essential for the health of the environment. And by feeding them only grass, and grazing them on pastures in patterns that mimic those of wild ruminants, we can create a system that requires very little water, produces no pollution and a gain in soil fertility, and actually has a net effect of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air! Industrial agriculture is a problem, but animal agriculture done this way is the solution.

Strike two.

And for the Animals

            Considering that humans are obligate omnivores (since science generally shouldn’t be discarded in favor of ideology), we have three options to supply those required foods: hunting/fishing, animal agriculture, and artificial meat production.

It is resource intensive to grow meat in a laboratory and, like most reductive science, likely wouldn’t provide a suitable substitute for meat. Also, it is unlikely to be scalable to the population’s demand for meat.

Hunting and fishing is a good solution, but not a complete one. At the current human population, supplying all of our animal product needs from natural populations would devastate them. There are maximum sustainable harvest rates that we should absolutely strive for in order to supply some of the demand, but to surpass them is to take that same right away from the next generation, and 10 and 100 generations down the line.

That leaves animal agriculture. I would argue, since we must raise animals for food instead of hunting them in the wild, we must make their lives better and longer than those of their wild cousins. Guess what? The holistic system I described earlier does just that. This is yet another reason to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, mostly from large grazing herbivores (red meat).

Even if we’re willing to ignore the fact that we are biological omnivores, the system of ethics by which we decide whether to eat animals is pretty much subjective. The most common framework is the “Least Harm Principal”, which posits that our dietary choices should be made in order to cause the least harm/suffering/discomfort to creatures with brains. The common argument is then: “so we shouldn’t kill animals for food when we can just eat grains and legumes”. But here’s the interesting thing: mechanical harvesting of grains and legumes, which is necessary at current consumption levels, results in the bloody, painful deaths of a significant number of animals living in the grain fields. Estimates actually have it at 25 times as many animal deaths per gram of protein produced in grain and legume agriculture, than in pasture-based ruminant agriculture (http://tinyurl.com/nr5f6m2), so the least harm principal indicates the latter as the best calorie choice in order to reduce animal suffering (http://tinyurl.com/hmqa6pj).

But my ethical approach to agriculture is a little different. It is well-documented that all creatures – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes – suffer in their own way, and limiting our scope of empathy only to those who suffer similarly to us is indefensible. For that reason, I believe in a more nuanced, large-scale method to reduce suffering – using the extensiveness of our agriculture to maximize the biomass production on the surface of the earth, producing the largest amount of healthy, thriving, biodiverse life possible, for the longest time possible. And what’s the best way to do that? Regenerative agriculture, including rotationally-grazed animals.

Strike three, case closed.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to https://sos.ri.gov/vic/ and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call and Times, Column 29 – The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

29 09 2015

(September 13, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

Take a trip to the meat section of your local supermarket. Pick up a package of ground beef; or a chicken leg; or a filet of cod. What do you actually know about that product? Sure, it came from a cow, or a chicken, or a fish. But how many (hundreds of) different cows did that ground beef come from? How small was the enclosure where the chicken was kept? Was the fish wild-caught, or farm-raised? How were these animals treated, what were they fed, and what was the effect of their production on the local environment? It is likely impossible to find the answers to these questions on the packaging. And in all honesty, that’s probably because you wouldn’t like the answers if they were there.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the current, abhorrent state of the conventional meat industry in the United States. I believe that knowledge drives changes in consumer buying patterns. I also believe that, when consumers reject the practices of an industry, it forces the industry to change or perish in its own filth. Therefore, it is my duty to scream this information from the rooftops – here goes.

First, let me introduce CAFOs – that stands for “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”. To envision what this means, imagine you and 1000 of your closest friends standing, shoulder-to-shoulder inside your house, in a few inches of your own excrement, for a few years of less-than-comfortable existence. When one of you gets sick, imagine how fast it spreads to the rest? When one of you dies, imagine the others simply cannibalizing him, for lack of something more mentally stimulating. Welcome to modern industrial agriculture in the good ol’ USA!

Cows live in feedlots, often a covered area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement; if they’re lucky, there’s no roof and they can see the sun. Pigs are raised in general, close-quarters confinement. Chickens live in squalid conditions in an enclosed barn, cooped in battery cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re egg layers, and sans the cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re meat birds.

In case you’re wondering, birds living in these filthy, crowded conditions engage in stress behaviors like rubbing their bodies against the side of the cages. We can’t have scarred meat if we wish to sell a perfect (-looking) product in the grocery store – hence, meat birds are cage-free! There was a bill in the Rhode Island legislature to also remove the battery cages in egg-laying operations, but one of our largest local egg producers, which sells its products at a premium price under the false guise of humane-treatment, adamantly and successfully opposed the bill. I guess corporate profits are more important than some minute semblance of animal welfare. That sounds reasonable.

Let’s take a look at diet. Chickens are natural seed-eaters, so I guess it’s good that they eat grains. But their diets in factory farms consist of other fun additions like arsenic and food dyes, so that the eggs are not so anemic that you can’t distinguish the yolk from the white.

Cows, goats, sheep, and llamas, on the other hand, are collectively called “ruminants” – they are herbivores with a special type of stomach that allows them to digest grass. Their natural diet is majorly grass-based, with some starchy plant matter, like roots and seeds, as would be found in a natural prairie. But by the magical logic that arises from ill-advised government subsidies and industrial agricultural practices, conventional farms feed these animals a diet exclusively of grains. That’s right: animals that are made to digest mostly grass are not fed grass, because that would cost too much. In case you are wondering, they are also fed supplemental goodies like chicken feathers and excrement (you read that right), and spoilt candy products – you know, food.

In addition, because there is little reason for these operations to use organic feed (scoff), some of the artificial pesticides and herbicides used on the grain fields can accumulate in the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat the grains.

As would probably be expected, the treatment of the animals in CAFOs is far from humane. They are also often given hormones to encourage unnaturally accelerated growth and increased milk production.

As a result of unnatural diets (especially in ruminants like cows) and stress, the animals are far more likely to get sick. A diet consisting entirely of grains makes the cows’ stomachs overly acidic; this encourages the development of e coli bacteria, which are capable of making human beings sick. To avoid this, they are often given therapeutic, daily doses of potent antibiotics with their feed, an incredibly reckless practice almost singly responsible for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria that we occasionally hear about in the news.

Just in case the animal treatment and human health conditions weren’t enough, the environment suffers under this system. Grain agriculture is generally horrible for the environment, so feeding these completely unnecessary crops to animals only compounds the problem. The large amount of manure that is produced by animals in confined operations (mind you, this is often laced with e coli) is rarely dealt with in an environmentally-constructive manner. Rather than being used to build the topsoil as is entirely possible, it becomes an environmental pollutant when it runs off into public waterways.

If everything above has made you sad, or angry, or queasy, I’m happy to hear it – that was my goal. But I want you to know: this applies only to industrial meat production. This applies to the system that produces the 10 cent chicken wings, and $2/pound ground beef, and cheap fast food.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. This system is the product of the past few decades of irresponsible, industry-driven agricultural policy. It is a huge, expensive mistake, and it is the job of everyone who knows about the issue – which now includes all of us – to relegate it to the history books.

The best way to change this is to starve Goliath, and instead feed David. We must entirely reject the system of factory farming, insofar as it is possible to do so, and substitute our own. Our health, our environment, and our collective karmic load will benefit from doing this.

Surprise, surprise: we can start by growing and raising food ourselves. Even if this only means a small organic vegetable garden, you can save money on food that can then be redirected to more responsible sources of animal products.

Better yet, raise micro-livestock. It is easy and inexpensive to raise a small flock of chickens for eggs and meat, and a small herd of rabbits for meat, in nearly any urban or suburban backyard. This ensures that your eggs and some of your meat are raised with human health and animal and environmental welfare as primary goals, and the savings can then be directed towards better choices for other animal products.

Skip the conventional meat, eggs, and milk from the supermarket, even if it’s labeled “natural” or “vegetarian fed” (unregulated terms that probably means the company is a factory farm). Buy from local farmers who you can talk to, whose operations you can see, who do it sustainably! Buy from farmers markets, making sure to actually ask the farmer about their practices. Buy from smaller grocery stores and marketplaces that themselves make an effort to source from local, sustainable operations.

To avoid everything I’ve mentioned above, you’re looking for pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and dairy products; wild-caught or sustainably-farmed fish; and eggs and meat from truly free-range, pasture-raised birds. Don’t rely on labels for this information. The food industries are experts at making you believe that a product is superior so that you’ll pay more for what amounts to a well-drawn label. Please email me if you’d like some more detailed guidance as to where you can buy your animal products, and which companies to support or avoid.

For all of you out there who have pets as I do, I know you can empathize with the ills of animal cruelty. Proverbs 12:10 says that “the righteous care for the needs of their animals”. Curiously, the Hebrew origin for that word “needs” is much deeper than the English lets on – it means the emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as the physical. The animals whose meat, eggs, and milk we consume – they are our animals. Their lives, how they were treated, how well their needs were met, become our responsibility as soon as we pay the system that produces them. Choose wisely.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Nerve

1 05 2012

First of all, sorry all for not posting in a while (has it been over a month?). I’ve been busy with school, an independent alternative energy project, etc.

That being said, here’s the way I see it:

Let’s say that I’m Monsanto (I know, I feel dirty already). 20 years ago, I developed this new technology – I found an efficient way to take genetic material from anywhere in any of the Kingdoms of Life, and put it in a plant. I also found a way to inject cows with something that makes them produce 10% more milk, no questions asked (except for a malfunctioning uterus, increased mastitis, and the chemically altered milk…shhh). I decided that these technologies were quite good, and because I had enough money from the last century of manufacturing toxic pollutants and my Better Living Through Plastic campaign, I went full-force in implementing them. So a little later, I was going about my business, slowly integrating my creations into the food supply, when out of blue, an obstructive Big Government gets in my way with unfounded questions like “Are you sure that’s safe?” and “Should the FDA label your stuff?”. Well, I put them in their place, or more accurately, I replaced them with my own people: Michael Taylor, Deputy Food Commissioner at the FDA, and Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice. You got it, they are both mine. Well, at this point, the unthinkable happened. Some idiots in the local and organic foods movement started talking about my business, my products, and my unannounced presence in the refrigerators of most Americans. They touted lies (i.e. complete truths) about how my genetic tinkering created new allergies, how my RoundUp gave people cancer, and how my milk made 8 year olds go through puberty – well, I would have none of that, so I did what any sensible multinational corporation would do, and denied it all. I hired lots of researchers to worship the merits of my products, got a bunch of lawyers to sue the pants off of people and governments in court, and insisted, in debate after debate, that my opponents had no true arguments and that they were just bitter Luddites. Also, just for good measure, I slapped the phrases “farmers” and “Feed the World” on my website a couple thousand times, to convince people of my altruism. Well, what good any of that did: it was time for brute, multinational corporate force. Try to label milk from cows treated with rBST…BOOM, you’ve got a multimillion dollar lawsuit on your sorry keister. Try to label GMOs…BOOM, lawsuits for everyone! Basically, I adopted the stance: I am here to stay, I make a bunch of probably dangerous food products, and if you don’t like that, too bad. You’re going to eat it, and if your government tries to give you the choice not to, everyone gets sued. Period. Deal with it. It’s not my problem. My newest strategy is working quite well, don’t you think?

Here’s some thoughts that have occurred to me along the way:

  1. Pretty much all of the things I genetically modify and sell are made into fat-based foods – soy, corn, cotton(seed), and canola are damn near the only sources of oil in the U.S. (aside from that olive oil, and those Europeans are hard nuts to crack with their objection to GMOs), and the milk is mostly made into cheese and butter. Plus, soybeans produce a chemical, phytoestrogen, similar to human estrogen (shh, don’t tell anyone) and the milk is laced with IGF-1, a human growth hormone. So, excessive amounts of lipids, sex- and growth-hormones in all the wrong places – I always say, “a fat, hormonally confused population is a subservient population”, so bring on the soybean oil and rBST milk!
  2. Once I got farmers to spray enough RoundUp and petroleum fertilizers on their farms while growing RoundUp resistant soybeans, they were pretty much hooked. Fertilizers depleted the natural fertility of the soil and the residual RoundUp made everything sterile and lifeless, so all they could plant next year was my soy – job security! Corn was pretty much the same. When the bugs became resistant to all but the most powerful pesticides (because of my overuse), I showed up with a corn that produces just that. Yum!
  3. A little slogan I like to live by: If something moves and it’s not a potential customer (so, if it’s a farmer or a bug), spray it with the most powerful neurotoxin available. If it’s a potential customer, give it high cholesterol and hormone imbalances with the ol’ Trinity of corn, milk, and soy, and launch a Monsanto Pharmaceuticals Division.

Am I not the most disgusting, immoral thing you’ve ever heard of? Well, guess what: As of January, 2010, I’m a legal Person in the United States, and I’m allowed to buy off your politicians and tell you nothing. What do you think of me now…….? That’s what I thought.

**Just as a quick note, I want to mention that, when I sarcastically refer to Monsanto’s use of helping farmers and feeding the world, it is not done with malice toward the farmers or poor people in third world countries. I believe in taking action to make sure there are no starving people, and it keeping at the forefront of my mind the value, tangible and intangible, that farmers add to society – I just don’t believe any of what Monsanto does actually helps any of these people, and is in fact making the third world poorer and the farmers bankrupt.





Monsanto, the bane of my existence

5 03 2012

Since Monsanto, the multinational chemical turned biotechnology company, has done more harm to the world in their 100 year tenure than any other person or company in history, I feel it fitting that my first post be a tribute of sorts to them. (All company history comes directly from Monsanto’s website, http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx)

Monsanto, originally a chemical company, was founded in 1901 by chemist John F. Queeny. In the hundred years between its founding and its conversion to a biotechnology company in 2000, Monsanto was responsible for quite a few well-known inventions:

  • saccharin and aspartame – artificial sweeteners that are believed to cause cancer and other health defects
  • 2-4D – a major ingredient in Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War to kill not only the enemy, but also innocent Vietnamese farmers and, yes, our own troops
  • Roundup – a powerful herbicide that, according to recent studies, causes cancerous tumors and effectively stops the body from fighting them
  • bovine growth hormone – rBGH, rBST, or Posilac; whatever name it is called, it increases cows’ milk production and gives them mastitis, polluting the milk with somatic cells (puss) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF, a human growth hormone)

And then, in the year 2000, EVERYTHING changed. Early in that year, Monsanto merged with a few other companies, and changed its name to Pharmacia Corporation. A few months later, Pharmacia Corporation spat out a subsidiary named – you guessed it – Monsanto, a primarily agricultural biotechnology firm that happened to have the same corporate structure, be staffed by the same people, and operate toward the same goals and products, as “the old Monsanto”. This was “the new Monsanto”, the self-proclaimed messiah, completely disconnected with the shady activities of its past.

Thus, we come to modern day. The Monsanto Company mainly produces what are called genetically engineered seeds. That is, plant organisms which have genetic material from another species, possibly from another taxonomic family entirely, forcibly inserted into their DNA, and that are only minimally tested for safety. Since around 1994, when the company first put its foot through the door of agribusiness, it has specialized in two major “products”, as they insist on calling the living creatures that they mutate and sell to the unknowing public – the Roundup Ready™ and Bt traits:

  • Roundup Ready™, as the name would imply, is a line of plants (mostly soybeans) that have been genetically modified to survive being liberally sprayed with the plant toxin glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand weed killer). What it does not say on the label is that glyphosate bonds to soil molecules, is taken up into the plant through its roots, and is consumed by innocent people like you and me, where it increases our risk of cancer while blocking our cells’ natural defenses against carcinogenesis (the formation of cancer).
  • Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, is a soil bacteria whose genetic material is inserted into the DNA of plants (mostly corn), so that the organism will produce a toxic chemical, thus making the plant act as its own pesticide. The toxin is present in every bit of the plant, including the part we eat, and studies have shown that it is not as narrowly “targeted” to specific pests as the company would like us to believe.

At this, one might ask: “Well, what do I have to worry about? I eat corn on the cob a couple of times a summer, and I never eat soybeans. This stuff really doesn’t affect me, right?” This, my friends, brings us to the pièce de résistance, if you will, of Monsanto’s invisible corporate empire. According to recent estimates, upwards of 75% of processed foods in the US contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. Through a clever game of intellectual property rights, manufacturing demand, and the “revolving door syndrome” with the US government (issues I will address, in due course, at a later time), Monsanto has unilaterally ensured that some form of its products, especially processed extracts, of extracts, of corn and soy, manifest themselves in most of the things we eat every day. When you start to think about it, the list goes on and on: (high fructose) corn syrup, soy lecithin, citric and lactic acid, dextrose, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, soy meal and corn flour, soy isolate, mono- and diglycerides, “natural flavors”, of course, and many, many others.

With such a presence in our modern world, your next question might be “Why have I never before heard of Monsanto Company?” To this, I can only say, you – all of us – were never supposed to. In the past decades, Monsanto has spent huge sums of money fighting citizen and government initiatives to label food that contains the company’s products. There is no “fine print” mentioning that the ingredients in any of the processed foods in the United States comes from Monsanto, and there is definitely no indication that they are derived from genetically modified sources. With the help of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with whom the company shares quite a few employees, Monsanto has constructed a system in which the public has absolutely no idea, unless they adamantly look for it, that the food they are eating is different than that eaten by their grandparents. The desire, the ultimate goal, of this shadowy entity seems to be a presence in every house, and every human body, in the world, while ensuring that its name never leaves the tongue of those destined to bear the effects of its unsafe creations. Forgive me, because I recognize that the way I say these ideas, they sound like conspiracy theories. I assure you, however, that they are far from that. Money and power make people to disturbing things, and the Monsanto Company is a perfect example of, in the paraphrased words of a blogger whose piece I read more than a year ago, “a company that is bat-s**t crazy with power”. Though it seems unreal, there is, in fact, a company that holds quite a bit of control over your life, and which takes great pains so that you have no idea that this is the case. What I have discussed here has only scratched the surface. There is a world of lies and deceit, both from this and other entities that feed you their poison and regulatory agencies that allow it to happen – and this is a topic I plan to cover at great length on this blog. At that, I leave you with a quote:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”     George Orwell, 1984