Sustainability, in a broad sense, is the capacity to endure; biological systems remaining productive over time. Sustainability also means long-term maintenance of well-being of the natural world and responsible use of all natural resources. The sustainability movement focuses on organic foods, which are defined as those produced without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, or genetic modification.
We recently saw yet another outbreak of E. Coli affecting the East Coast, causing two fatalities and sickening at least 28 others. The subsequent recall involved more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef distributed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The fact that this particular processing plant had three recalls since 2007 is just another indicator of how flawed our system currently is. Having a compelling desire to share some facts with my peers and the readers of this blog, I would like to assess some of the challenges our dysfunctional food chain faces:
One billion people worldwide do not have secure access to food, including 36 million in the U.S. National and international food and agricultural policies have helped to create the global food crisis but can also help to fix the system.
- 76 million Americans are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year because of foodborne illnesses, according to the CDC.
- RBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is a genetically engineered hormone injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk. Many countries have banned the use of RBGH, including Canada and the European Union, but not the United States, where it is used extensively.
- Pesticide concentrations in dust collected from farm workers’ homes were five times higher than those in non-farm workers’ homes.
- The USDA estimates that between 1970 and 2000, the average daily calorie intake in the U.S. increased by 24.5%, or about 530 calories.
- Six hormones are implanted in beef cattle for no other reason than to make the cows grow faster so they can be sold sooner.
- 90% of all U.S. feedlot cattle are hormone implanted.
- Human deaths related to poor diet and physical inactivity is second only to tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.
- One-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. High-calorie, sugar-laden processed foods coupled with our sedentary lifestyles are growing our waistlines and contributing to serious health issues such as diabetes, heart ailments, and cancers. Kids should be served healthy meals, not soda and junk food.
Virtually all the meat, eggs, and dairy products you find in the supermarket come from animals raised in confinement in large facilities called CAFOs, Confined Animal Feeding Operations. These highly mechanized operations provide a year-round supply of food at a reasonable price. Although the food is cheap and convenient, there is growing recognition that factory farming creates a host of problems, including animal stress and abuse, pollution, unnecessary use of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs, as well as the loss of small family farms, and, last but not least, food with lower nutritional value.
Animals raised in factory farms are given diets designed to boost their productivity and lower costs. The main ingredients are genetically modified grain and soy that are kept at artificially low prices by government subsidies. To further cut costs, the feed may also contain “by-product feedstuff” such as municipal garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers, and candy. Until 1997, U.S. cattle were also being fed meat that had been trimmed from other cattle, in effect turning herbivores into carnivores. This unnatural practice is believed to be the underlying cause of BSE or “mad cow disease.”
Ruminants are designed to eat fibrous grasses, plants, and shrubs—not starchy, low-fiber grain. When they are switched from pasture to grain, they can become afflicted with a number of disorders, including a common but painful condition called subacute acidosis. Cattle with subacute acidosis kick at their bellies, go off their feed, and eat dirt. To prevent more serious reactions, the animals are given chemical additives and antibiotics. When medications are overused in the feedlots, bacteria become resistant to them. When people become infected with these new, disease-resistant bacteria (i.e., E. Coli outbreak), there are fewer medications available to treat them.
Most of the nation’s chickens, turkeys, and pigs are also being raised in confinement. They suffer an even worse fate than the grazing animals. Tightly packed into cages, sheds, or pens, they cannot practice their normal behaviors, such as rooting, grazing, and roosting. Laying hens are crowded into cages that are so small that there is not enough room for all of the birds to sit down at one time. They cannot escape the stench of their own manure. Meat and eggs from these animals are lower in a number of key vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.
- 1,500 miles: The distance average food product travels to get to your grocery store.
- 30,800 tons: The amount of greenhouse gas emissions resulting every year from transporting food.
- 6% of U.S. farms generate 75% of all commercial agricultural production.
- In 2007, 63% of hens sold for egg production and 67% of chickens sold for meat production were raised on farms that managed more than 100,000 birds.
- In 2007, 87% of all hogs sold in the U.S. were raised on farms that managed more than 5,000 hogs.
- $8 billion: Total agriculture subsidies in 2007.
- 10% of eligible farms received 60% of all farm subsidies that same year.
- The fast food industry is one of the driving forces behind the factory farm system. In an effort to sell food as cheaply as possible, animals are fed the wrong types of feed, injected with hormones, fed heavy metals, and pumped full of antibiotics.
- When animals are raised in feedlots or cages, they deposit large amounts of manure in a small amount of space. The manure must be collected and transported away from the area, an expensive proposition. To cut costs, it is dumped as close to the feedlot as possible. As a result, the surrounding soil is overloaded with nutrients, which can cause ground and water pollution. When animals are raised outdoors on pasture, their manure is spread over a wide area of land, making it a welcome source of organic fertilizer, not a waste management problem.
- $34.7 billion: The annual cost of environmental damage caused by U.S. industrial farming.
- 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in the U.S.
- Millions of gallons of untreated manure are held in open-air pits and pollute the surrounding air, land, and water.
- 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in at least 17 states have been polluted by cattle waste.
Cancers, autism, and neurological disorders are associated with the use of pesticides, especially among farm workers and their communities. What pesticides are in your food?
Back to Pasture
Since the late 1990s, a growing number of ranchers have stopped sending their animals to the feedlots to be fattened on grain, soy, and other supplements. Instead, they are keeping their animals home on the range where they forage on pasture, their native diet. These new-age ranchers do not treat their livestock with hormones or feed them growth-promoting additives. As a result, the animals grow at a natural pace. For these reasons and more, grass-fed animals live low-stress lives and are so healthy there is no reason to treat them with antibiotics or other drugs.
Raising animals on pasture requires more knowledge and skill than sending them to a feedlot. For example, in order for grass-fed beef to be succulent and tender, the cattle need to forage on high-quality grasses and legumes, especially in the months prior to slaughter. This nutritious and natural diet requires healthy soil and careful pasture management so that the plants are maintained at an optimal stage of growth. Because high-quality pasture is the key to high-quality animal products, many pasture-based ranchers refer to themselves as “grass farmers” rather than “ranchers.” They raise great grass; the animals do all the rest.
A major benefit of raising animals on pasture is that their products are healthier for you. Compared with feedlot meat, meat from grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, and goats has less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. It also has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and a number of health-promoting fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid or CLA.
When you choose to eat meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals raised on pasture, you are improving the welfare of the animals, helping to put an end to environmental degradation, helping small-scale ranchers and farmers make a living from the land, helping to sustain rural communities, and giving your family the healthiest possible food. It’s a win-win-win-win situation.
I recently watched Food, Inc., a sobering, but well-done documentary exposing the activities of nation’s food industry, the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the public with the consent of USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers, and our own environment.
The issues are many, and the stakes are high. There is no single solution for this complex issue, and no quick fix for a system with its root cause going back to the policies of the 1970s. The public not only deserves better in the form of a food chain with transparency and integrity, we owe it to our children to leave them a better place.
We, as chefs and professionals, can contribute greatly, I feel we have an obligation not only to educate our employees, but our guests as well, tackling the issues at stake, getting involved, and being part of the solution.
VOTE WITH YOUR FORK! Incorporate more local, sustainable foods at your business.
URGE your suppliers to support you in sourcing and obtaining locally grown, sustainably raised meat and vegetables from independent family farmers.
EDUCATE your family, friends, neighbors, schools, and community! Find more info at www.SustainableTable.org.
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” ~J.A. Brillat-Savarin, 1755-1826