Recently John Stossel of FOX Business Channel has aired a number of segments disparaging sustainable agriculture. His issues have included the use of herbicides and pesticides, grainfed vs. grassfed beef, genetically modified salmon and food safety. Is Stossel going out of his way to be outrageously provocative? To what end? And for whose benefit? Certainly we are not the only ones to condemn these reports as being inaccurate, unbalanced and biased, as the many comments to the reports attest. Stossel would no doubt accuse me of being unrealistic and only supporting small scale farms. However, the reality is that to keep the planet healthy and fed we will need to employ a wide range of solutions. Sadly, the last 40 years of ”big ag’s” version of the solution has shown chronic failure in the form of antibiotic resistance, tainted water and some of the largest food recalls in history. Too bad Stossel doesn’t recognize that we have to stop using the planet – a finite resource – as “big ag’s” test tube.
An article which first appeared on the web back in January is doing the rounds again. This time it’s being used by the National Beef Packing Company to promote its “natural” beef. The National Beef Packing Company has a lot to say about the benefits of its feedlot-raised, grain-fed beef versus grassfed beef, and is currently using an edited version of an article by James E. McWilliams, entitled “Beware the Myths of Grassfed Beef,” to support its argument. I’m not sure if the editing of this newer version was done by McWilliams himself, or if National realized that if they printed the original article in its entirety they would at the very least find themselves promoting the animal welfare and health benefits of grassfed over feedlot beef. Because in his original article, McWilliams states that “the comparative health benefits of grass-fed beef are well documented” and that “scores of studies indicate that it's higher in omega 3s and lower in saturated fat.” He also says that grassfed systems are “kinder to the animals” – all points which have miraculously disappeared from the National Beef Packing Company’s current version. But let’s not worry about that now, and go straight to the “meat” of the article.
My family and I are traveling through the American West, and I am awed by its wild majesty and beauty. During a stop at Yellowstone, we paused by a river to watch six bison cross. Soon, we were treated to one of the most astonishing sights I’ve ever seen—something I feel grateful that my sons were able to witness. Those six bison were soon followed by their herd mates, and we were able to see something not many Americans have experienced since bison were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century: the awe-inspiring power of a bison herd on the move. Probably 200 bison forded that stream as they moved to new grazing lands, and witnessing it was an unparalleled experience. Despite their powerful size, bison are graceful creatures and move almost daintily, but with speed and purpose. And they really do thunder. In 1800, it was estimated that more than 40 million bison roamed the United States; by 1900, after an unprecedented and sustained massacre, fewer than 600 bison remained. Most of the bison you see today are descendents of a ragtag group of several dozen bison who had been saved by conservationists dedicated to their survival. Historically, bison were the lifeblood of a number of Native American tribes, providing meat, skins, and other important supplies. Indeed, bison meat has fed humans for thousands of years. Six years ago was the first time I saw bison being farmed for meat. The animals were being raised on 13,000 acres in Texas and were roaming their homelands in family groups, just as nature intended. They were carefully overseen by skilled stockmen who knew that the best management for these magnificent creatures was to ensure that they had the space and freedom to utilize the land to their own advantage.
At the recent Council for Agricultural Science and Technology symposium there seemed to be a consensus that folks didn’t trust science. Now, as some of you might know from my previous blogs (see “Beware of Bad Science”), one of my pet peeves is deceit and spin being masqueraded as real science. I believe that this practice is helping to undermine the vital role that science has to play in our lives, and is a key reason why more and more people don’t trust scientists. On May 27, 2010, AgriLife Communications posted a press release which appears to refute claims that grassfed beef is healthier than grainfed beef. But the shocking lack of academic rigor behind this seemingly important press release demonstrates to me exactly why people are losing their faith in science. This press release, entitled “Study shows ground beef from grainfed cattle healthier than grassfed,” claims to highlight new research by Dr. Stephen Smith, a Professor of Meat Science at AgriLife Research, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The background is that Dr. Smith was paid by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to look at the potential effects of eating grassfed or grainfed beef on cholesterol levels.
We are very proud to congratulate Animal Welfare Approved farmer, Bill Stuart, Jr. of Stuart Family Farm in Bridgewater, CT who has been selected to maintain Happy Landings in Brookfield, CT. Happy Landings is made up of nearly 50 acres of farmland that, according to both Stuart and the Brookfield Conservation Commission, has not been very well taken care of in recent years. Stuart said in order to “get it back in farm shape” he’ll have to get the native grasses back, eliminate the weeds that have overtaken the land and add quite a bit of lime to the soil in order to neutralize its high acidity. The land’s sole use will be for hay making. Bill is very excited about the opportunity to become the steward of the property because he says, “it will be a huge benefit to the local community. It’s going to be a completely sustainable local food system.” Stuart Family Farm already feeds 250-300 Connecticut families and many of them are living in Brookfield.
A couple of opinion pieces that appeared within days of each other have recently caught my eye. First was “Grass-fed beef packs a punch to environment” by Dr. Gidon Eshel on the Reuters Blog, swiftly followed by “The myth of green beef,” in the Atlantic Blog, by Helene York. Both pieces swim rather vigorously against the scientific tide on the issue of the environmental impact of beef and grassfed cattle systems in particular. The issue of environmental impact and meat production is a complicated one and open to misinterpretation and confusion. With my obvious interest in grassfed and pasture-raised production I am always looking to see what new evidence is being presented. After reading both pieces, however, I was left feeling rather disappointed. These articles are interesting, but they are interesting for all the wrong reasons. While they appear to put forward a strong argument, with independent studies mentioned, if not always actually referenced, they actually expose the problems of scientific reductionism and a general lack of academic rigor.
It was two years ago today that the U.S. saw its largest meat recall in history. The USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef distributed by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company and said that the meat had been used in school lunches and food assistance programs. On January 18 of this year, Huntington Meat Packing Inc. of Montebello, CA recalled 864,000 lbs of beef because it may have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. This past weekend the recall was expanded to more than 5 million lbs of meat. Some of the products made from this meat appear to have been distributed through the USDA National School Lunch Program. Happy anniversary of the Hallmark recall, America! You were expecting flowers?
Animal Welfare Approved ranchers in southeast US looking for Animal Welfare Approved/American Grassfed Association certified farms to supply calves for grass fed operations. Immediate need. Please contact Julie Munk at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202.546.5292.
We were thrilled to hear from Dan Gibson this weekend about his farm being featured on WMHT. Take a look! A farm visit is featured at first, followed by a cooking segment. And nice cap there Dan!
For most of human history, our relationship with cattle has been about the foods they produce: milk, meat and cheese. Today, a new bovine "product" has captured our interest and may indeed affect the future production of the others. This new product is gas. Cow burps are the most recent in the list of accused contributors to global warming from the livestock sector. However, a simple measurement of methane production does not tell the whole story. A new report by the Soil Association reevaluates greenhouse gas production in agriculture, taking into account the grazing system - not just the "end product." This controversy erupted in recent years as figures emerged about agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. As we discussed in our November 16, 2009 blog, "Beware of Bad Science," grassfed cattle actually produce fewer emissions than those finished in feedlots, simply because of the carbon sequestration in their pasture-based systems. The new Soil Association report confirms this and adds new data to support the position.