It's a tradition of mine to write a note of sincere gratitude to Big Ag for the many "gifts" they've bestowed upon us all over the past 12 months relating to food animal production. Gifts that we didn't really want, need, or—in some cases—didn't even know about. Here's my top 10 for 2014.
Here at AWA, we’ve been thinking a lot about this special holiday and how we may have more in common with our ancestors than we think. Upon arriving in America, the early pilgrims ate what was locally available (granted, they didn’t have an alternative!). This happened to be animals that ranged and foraged in the woods and pastures, eating a diet specific to their natural needs and free from non-therapeutic antibiotics or added hormones. Sounds like a Certified AWA farm, doesn’t it? Meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised outdoors on pasture or range is better for you, better for farmers, and better for the planet all great reasons to give thanks.
Well, it’s official: the United States of America is on its way to becoming China’s cesspool. Or the world's largest “CAFO”… As reported by almost every major media outlet, Smithfield Foods – the nation’s biggest pork producer – is being sold to Shuanghui International, one of China’s biggest meat processors, for $7.1 billion (including assumed debts). According to the New York Times, it’s the largest takeover to date of an American company by a Chinese rival.
We know that most of the world’s hungry live in the developing nations in the South. They are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food or grow it themselves, usually because of poverty, but also due to conflict, poor infrastructure, poor agricultural practices, and the over-exploitation of the environment, among other things. They are also hungry because much of their agricultural production is focused on generating food and livestock feed to supply Western markets. Recent price rises caused by harvest failures, commodity speculation, and the diversion of grain to produce biofuels over recent years have hardly helped matters (see for example Tom Philpott’s excellent blog on the horrendous impact U.S. biofuels policy is having on global food prices – and hunger).
In the U.S., we pride ourselves on being the best of the best. And in this Olympic year we’re all hoping that we’ll come home with the Gold. However, there is one area where the U.S. leads which should deeply concern us all. Figures initially presented by Dr. Danilo Lo Fo Wong of the World Health Organization reveal that the U.S. is leading the world in the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming – and by a long way. We use more antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced than any other nation in the world – and we use 12 times as much as the country using the least, Norway. In doing so we are jeopardizing our future ability to treat killer diseases, all for the sake of so-called “cheap” animal protein and short-term industry profit. In this case, by coming in first, we may actually be in danger of losing it all. Just last week Professor Lance Price from the TGen Centre for Microbiomics and Human Health in Arizona spoke in London, the site of this years’ Olympic Games, to highlight not American excellence, but American failings, saying that U.S. lawmakers were "significantly further behind Europe" after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006.
Whether it’s the regular tweets of the big-name food pundits or the countless anonymous contributors to online food discussions, an astonishing amount of advice is now dished out on what food we should buy and where we should buy it. While much of this guidance is sound and reasonable, some of it is wildly inaccurate or just downright unrealistic. Take the latest mantra that cropped up in an online discussion that I was following: ‘Before you buy any food you should go and visit the farm, because that will answer all your questions.’ Buying direct from the farm or at the farmers’ market is something I wholeheartedly enjoy supporting. In doing so, my family hasn’t bought into the appalling practices of industrial agriculture; we’ve used our dollars to support local farms - and the food usually tastes great, too. But is it realistic to expect every conscientious consumer to have the time and ability to actually visit the farm first – let alone the expertise to assess what they see when they get there?
Last week, The Daily broke the news that the USDA planned to buy 7 million pounds of Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) – otherwise known as “pink slime” – for school lunches. Some reports state that 70% of prepackaged grind on retailers' shelves contain it. The resulting backlash has had more effect than anyone expected. Following a public outcry and hundreds of thousands of signatories to petitions to try to get the product out of schools, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the world’s leading producer of BLBT, has launched a new counteroffensive website “pink slime is a myth.” So where does the truth lie? Obviously, Boneless Lean Meat Trimmings sounds a lot more appetizing than “pink slime.” But whatever you call it, what is it? And how is it produced? The “pink slime is a myth” website says that BLBT is the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut. This is true as far as it goes. But BLBT isn’t quite the same as the bits of meat that you or your butcher might cut off the edge of a steak or other piece of meat. BLBT is the fatty trimmings that even BPI agrees couldn’t be separated with the knife. In the past, these trimmings were used for pet food or converted into oil rather than being served as hamburgers to people.
Ask any farmer to list his or her major challenges and the issue of who will take over the farm when it’s time to retire will no doubt feature in the top 10. According to government statistics about 40% of U.S. farmers are 55 years old and up, raising real concerns about exactly who is going to fill their shoes. The sad fact is that there are fewer young people getting involved in farming than ever, and many young people see no future in the family farm. As a result, countless family farms are being bought up and absorbed by larger industrial operations. In my opinion this is one of the greatest tragedies of our generation. This is why Shelby Grebenc of Broomfield, CO, is such an inspiration. Shelby is founder of “Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm,” located about 20 miles outside of Denver. And at just 12 years-old, Shelby is also the youngest Animal Welfare Approved farmer to date. Shelby represents a beacon of hope for the future. Her dedication to high-welfare farming is an inspiration to all of us – regardless of age.
McDonald’s has just discovered bigger isn’t always better. McDonald’s – one of the nation’s largest egg purchasers - has just dropped Sparboe Farms, one of the biggest egg producers in the U.S. after undercover filming showed abuse of chicks and hens at facilities in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. McDonald’s is finding out that there is a price to be paid for dealing with industrial egg producers like Sparboe. By their very design these industrial systems fail to meet the needs of the hens, fail to protect the consumer from health problems such as Salmonella and fail to provide farm workers with a safe and positive working environment. However, McDonald's Europe boasts a much more sustainable supply chain - in fact, over 95% of all eggs used by McDonald’s across 21 European countries are either free range or cage free “barn” eggs. Why then can McDonald’s in the U.S. not learn from its European operation?
Animal Welfare Approved has an annual tradition of taking a moment to thank the family farmers who work so hard to produce healthy and environmentally responsible food for our communities. Farming is not an easy job, and we want to encourage AWA friends and followers to take this opportunity to appreciate farmers you know for their contribution to our holiday tables and to our tables every day. As the only national nonprofit organization that audits, certifies and supports farmers raising animals on pasture, we are fortunate to have become the most highly regarded food label for sustainability and outdoor farming systems. With an ever-growing family of certified farms, AWA helps consumers find sustainable, pasture-raised products and connect with the farmers that produce them. We encourage you to seek out AWA farms and purchase their products this holiday season as a way to support pasture-based farms. Please also use this forum and social media to share your thanks. USE THE COMMENT BOX BELOW TO SHARE YOUR THANKS TO FAMILY FARMERS. OR… to use Twitter to thank family farmers, use the hash tag #ThankAWAFarmers. On Facebook, use @Animal Welfare Approved to tag your message. We will share all of these messages with AWA farmers! Food is a central focus of any holiday, but it has impacts far beyond the table. While the majority of farm animals are raised in extreme confinement, numerous studies have shown that pasture- and range-based farming is better for the environment and brings a wide range of benefits to both animals and consumers. Our farmers are providing good, healthy food from animals raised according to the highest standards and are moving us all towards a more sustainable future. Every animal we raise outdoors on pasture brings an environmental benefit to us all – in responsible nutrient management, soil conservation and lower environmental impact. Join us in celebrating these farmers who work so hard to feed us and who are truly stewards of our planet.