Animal Agriculture + Sustainability: The Meat You Eat Matters

Learning about sustainable animal agriculture has changed my opinion about eating meat and other animal products. I was a completely plant-based vegan for over a year as a possible migraine cure, and learning about our industrial food system completely turned me off to meat and animal products. Recently I started to get curious, did some research, talked to a couple farmers, and changed my ideas a bit. Now I eat a plant-based diet and started introducing some sustainable animal products and finding some food freedom with that. I don’t handle most dairy very well, but have discovered a heavenly goat cheese that is an occasional delicacy that sits well with me. And although the alternatives are good too, nothing compares to the taste and texture of meat. The kind of meat and other animal products we eat matters, and the quantity matters too- it’s about changing the way we see and consume them. From the raising and production process to the environment and our health, sustainable animal agriculture is an entirely different animal than our current conventional system. I am grateful that I live in Humboldt County where we have a thriving sustainable local food system, and the sustainable food movement is growing and becoming an option in more areas.

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The Bad News of the Current Conventional System

“Industrial or “conventional” agriculture describes the farming practices and scale at which most food is grown in the United States right now. These farms employ the principles of industrialization to maximize production and reduce cost, and function much like a factory. This is why we use the term “factory farm” to describe the huge operations focused on mass production of a singular product: beef or eggs, for example. This method of producing food consumes finite resources without replenishing them, including the very resources on which food production depends: healthy soil, clean water and fresh air. The Industrial food system is built for scale and efficiency, and while it often results in food that is less expensive for the consumer, it also creates externalized costs that must be absorbed by governments and taxpayers. Farms under this system have become larger and larger, and food processing facilities have become increasingly more consolidated, with many industries controlled by just a few large companies” (foodprint.org).

“The way our food is produced poses an acute risk to public health on multiple fronts. Overcrowding on factory farms, where cattle, pigs and chickens are raised; the ammonia-filled hen houses where our eggs are produced by the tens of thousands; the monocropped fields of corn, soy and produce that rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides – these intensive agricultural practices have implications for our health. Some of these public health threats are a result of environmental degradation to our air, water and soil quality from animal waste and agricultural runoff. Some threats are because the industrial model of farming provides an excess of inexpensive, low nutrient food” (foodprint.org).

“Factory farming, also called industrial farming, takes a mechanized approach to agriculture that emphasizes quantity over quality and short-term profit over the longer- term effects on communities or the environment. This philosophy translates to raising huge numbers of animals in tightly confined spaces, reliance on just a few crops increasingly grown from genetically modified seeds, and widespread applications of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic chemicals. Factory farms cause wide- spread environmental, economic and social damage and are supported by taxpayer-funded government subsidies. If the owners of factory farms, rather than taxpayers, were forced to pay for the damage these facilities inflict, they would no longer be seen as profitable” (sustainabletable.org).

“Over a 12 year period, in every disease outbreak in the United States that was caused by contaminated drinking water in which a pathogen could be identified, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control concluded it most likely originated in livestock. While the media report on only a handful of large outbreaks, 76 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 325,000 people are hospitalized for food related illnesses and 5,200 die in that same time period. In addition, industrial agriculture has negative effects on human health ranging from pesticide poisoning to the current dangerous increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. The drive to produce more cheap food has also led to the adoption of genetically modified crops and cloning, with virtually nothing known about their effects on human health” (sustainabletable.org).

“In the unsanitary conditions typical of confined feedlots, animals are given continual low doses of antibiotics in their feed to prevent sickness, promote faster growth and boost profits. This contributes to increased antibiotic resistance in the bacteria that infect people- a serious threat to public health. In 2009, 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. were given to livestock” (ewg.org).

“In the United States and other parts of the world, livestock production is becoming increasingly dominated by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In a CAFO, animals are crammed by the thousands or tens of thousands, often unable to breathe fresh air, see the light of day, walk outside, peck at a plants or insects, scratch the earth, or eat a blade of grass” (www.cafothebook.org).

“The industrialization of agriculture began after World War II, as a way of addressing global hunger and making the food supply more efficient and safe. The global shift towards this model of farming in the last sixty years has come with many costs. Industrialized agriculture is highly concentrated and mechanized, relying on chemical inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and non-therapeutic antibiotics. However, sustainable agriculture, which uses methods that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare, is gaining traction” (foodprint.org).

“Much of the meat we eat in the US is from unsustainable factory farms. Vegetarianism is an option, but there is a third path: eating less, but more sustainably-raised, meat and animal products. The good news is that consumers can lessen their own environmental impact of meat consumption by following a two-part strategy: ‘less meat, better meat’” (foodprint.org).

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The Good News of Simple Sustainability

“Sustainable agriculture refers to farming that is good for the environment, animals and people. This approach recognizes that the earth needs to be in good health because it must continue to provide for future generations. This type of farming is based on a whole ecosystem approach, not focused just on the individual product —like vegetables, meat, eggs etc.— but on investing in a healthy system overall, including the wellbeing of people and animals, community health, ecological health and soil health. Sustainable agriculture also doesn’t rely on adding in “external inputs” such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. This helps farmers be less reliant on buying things off-farm. This approach makes use of its own “outputs” by composting the crop waste (stalks, stubble, leaves, etc.), and applying animal manure as fertilizer onto fields…. When something is sustainable, it can support itself indefinitely. Sustainable food production preserves the land’s capacity to grow and nourish food into the future. It relies on renewable resources and on symbiotic relationships with nature and the surrounding community. Sustainable agriculture does not damage the environment or harm human health, and offers a safe work environment and a fair wage to the farmer, supporting and enhancing rural life. Because sustainable farmers see nature as an ally rather an obstacle, they are able to produce more wholesome food using less fossil fuel, thus contributing less to climate change. Unlike industrial farming, sustainable farming does not rely on synthetic pesticides, artificial hormones, or routine use of antibiotics” (foodprint.org).

“For raising animals, the USDA Organic regulations prohibit all hormones and antibiotics and require that: animals be fed one hundred percent organic feed, free of animal byproducts and growth hormones, animals have access to the outdoors, and producers meet animal health and welfare standards…. Some farmers decide that USDA Organic certification is not worth it for reasons of cost or other concerns, even though they follow all the organic standards and more. Some farmers market their products as “beyond organic” and provide customers with information about their growing practices. A number of third-party certification programs also provide an alternative to USDA certification. Certified Naturally Grown, for example, uses USDA Organic guidelines, but is locally regulated and less expensive to implement. Animal Welfare Approved is seen as the gold standard for certification of animal products, with rigorous standards for animal welfare, as well as environmental stewardship. As of Spring 2018, a new certification is being offered, called Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), based on soil health, pasture-based animal welfare and fairness for farmers and workers. Another certification in the works in the Real Organic Project (ROP), a family farm driven project focused on soil-grown products (as opposed to hydroponically-grown products), which aims to become an add-on certification to the USDA Certified Organic Program” (foodprint.org).

“Meat is important in many people’s diets, and when eaten in moderation it can provide healthy complete proteins, along with other nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamins B-12, B-6 and niacin. However, Americans consume far more meat than needed to get their recommended amount of daily protein- adult men, on average, get twice as much protein as they need” (ewg.org).

Eating “less meat” does not mean that you must permanently give up meat and become vegan or vegetarian. For instance, simply buying and eating smaller portions of meat at each meal is a straightforward reduction technique.Meat can become less central to the plate, with legumes, grains or vegetables taking center stage. Home cooks can use smaller bits of meat, like smoked turkey wings or bacon, to flavor a vegetable-centered dish, instead of using whole cuts of turkey or pork. Meatless Monday is a common meat-reduction strategy that is practiced worldwide. By taking a day off from meat, you can decrease your own meat consumption by one-seventh (or nearly 15 percent) and essentially decrease by the same amount the very problems associated with meat production and consumption. Extending this further is the “flexitarian” approach, where one’s diet is based primarily on plant-based foods and proteins, yet with flexibility to have meat, fish and dairy on occasion. Of course, there is always the option of eliminating meat entirely, and maintaining a fully vegetarian or vegan diet” (foodprint.org).

 “Pastured-raised animal products are often more expensive than the conventional, industrial meat sold in most grocery stores, but consumers can use the money saved from buying lessmeat to purchase better meat (and more produce, legumes, etc.). It is also worth remembering that paying more for pasture-raised meats means paying for the food’s “true cost,” including environmental and health benefits. If you cannot afford to buy or cannot locate better, pastured meat, you can focus on eating less meat.When “less meat” and ‘better meat” are practiced together, they benefit farm and ranch workers, public health, society at large, animals and the environment. By reducing meat and dairy consumption, people can shrink their environmental foodprints, including the impact on water, greenhouse gases, soil, nitrogen pollution and more” (foodprint.org).

“Raising animals on pasture, instead of confined in factory farms, has many benefits- to the environment, animals and people. Sustainable livestock farmers use a wide variety of practices, not only to raise animals humanely, produce better products and provide a living for themselves and their families, but also to build soil and sequester carbon, mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases. At the heart of sustainable livestock production is well-managed pasture, forest or rangeland, where animals can move and graze freely” (foodprint.org).

“A growing body of research indicates that pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products are better for consumers’ health than grainfed options. In addition to being lower in calories and total fat, pasture-raised foods have higher levels of vitamins and a healthier balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than conventional meat and dairy products. Studies have shown grassfed milk to contain as much as five times the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (a healthy fatty acid as milk from grainfed cows, while grassfed meat has been shown to contain 200 to 500 percent more CLA as a proportion of total fatty acids than grainfed meat.Free-range chickens have 21 percent less fat in total, 30 percent less saturated fat and 28 percent fewer calories than their factory-farmed counterparts. Eggs from poultry raised on pasture have 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more Vitamin A and 400 percent more omega-3s” (foodprint.org).

“The true costs (of labor, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, etc.) are reflected in retail pricing for pasture-raised meats, dairy and eggs, which can cause sticker shock. It is important to understand that pastured meat products are more expensive than their industrialized counterparts, because they are the result of a dramatically different model of food production. This knowledge might help you as a consumer to adjust your expectation of what pastured meat products “should” cost. It is also important to realize that the extra dollars spent on these purchases directly support independent farmers — and that this further represents a positive investment in the development of a sustainable, healthy, alternative system” (foodprint.org).

 “A major benefit of raising animals on pasture is that their products are healthier for you. For example, 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” (eatwild.com).

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” (eatwild.com).

“Reducing meat consumption is critical in order to reduce the burden of chronic preventable diseases, preserve precious resources and mitigate climate change. High-meat diets, especially those low in vegetables and fruits, are associated with adverse health outcomes such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Try meatless Monday for a small start- its becoming a movement as more people start to realize the benefits of consuming less and better meat. Among the many public health concerns related to high-density livestock production, the generation and transmission of harmful pathogens from animal production sites is an important public health problem. In addition, people who live near animal production sites may face an array of exposures to hazardous pollutants. When industrial food animal production methods are used, large numbers of animals are raised in close proximity under unhygienic conditions, a situation that has been well documented to be an ideal breeding ground for bacterial and viral pathogens. To make matters worse, it is common for these operations to rely upon the regular use of antibiotics (and other antimicrobials), in part to compensate for un- hygienic production methods” (meatlessmonday.com).

“Learning about sustainable seafood options can be daunting: many popular wild fish species have been depleted; much fish farming is done in an unsustainable manner; and more than 80 percent of seafood in the US is imported from other countries, often with questionable health, safety, labor and environmental standards. However, by doing a little research on your own using the consumer seafood guides, and by directly asking restaurants and markets about where their fish comes from and how it was caught or farmed, you can find healthy and sustainable seafood” (foodprint.org).

“A common argument against sustainable agriculture is that it cannot “feed the world.” However, as noted previously, today’s industrialized agriculture has left one in nine people undernourished worldwide. This is despite the fact that agricultural production today already produces 2,800 daily calories for every person on earth enough to feed the population of 10 billion we expect by 2050. The fact is that feeding the world is a problem of power, not of calories, and industrial agriculture has concentrated power in an increasingly small number of hands. Additionally, research has shown that various kinds of sustainable agriculture do achieve yields in the range of those obtained by chemical-dependent methods. Depending on the circumstances and crop, sustainable yields have been shown to be equivalent, slightly greater (particularly in drought conditions, which is increasingly important as the climate changes), or 15 to 20 percent lower than those of chemical agriculture. Given how underfunded the research and development of sustainable agriculture techniques have been, especially in comparison to conventional techniques, the yield differences are relatively small, suggesting that further research investment has the potential to reveal dramatic productivity gains” (cafothebook.org).

Many citizens are calling for a much larger and more responsive role for government along the path toward sustainable food production. This does not mean we have to embrace a vegan society or renounce animal food products of all kinds. Yet somewhere along this path to reform, the general public’s perception of vegetarianism simply has to change. Meatless meals may one day become a more frequent choice in a significant number of households and school meal programs. Livestock will probably remain essential for farming systems as well as for the human diet for some time. But the shift from quantity of the last century to quality and diversity (in all forms) must become a leading force in a 21st century food and farming policy” (cafothebook.org).

“Eating meat from grass-fed animals raised in open pasture on a natural diet of organic grass, hay and forage, without antibiotics and growth hormones, is less environmentally damaging and more ethical than consuming meat from animals raised or fattened on grain in confined feedlots- which is what Americans mostly buy. Grass-fed is healthier for you, too- studies show that grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat, higher in heart-healthy Omega 3’s, vitamin E, beta-carotene, B vitamins and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk. Unfortunately, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, eggs and dairy can be expensive and difficult to find. Ask your grocer to carry them or try to buy directly from a local producer. When you buy less meat overall, it’s easier to afford healthier, greener meat and dairy” (ewg.org).

“When shopping, look for: grass-fed or pasture-raised meat, no antibiotics or hormones, certified organic, certified humane, local, unprocessed, nitrite-free and low sodium, and ‘best choice’ seafood from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch” (ewg.org).

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6 Ways to Cook with Less Meat (but Better Meat) (foodprint.org)

“Not sure how to adjust your diet to eating less meat? Here are seven ways to turn that “less meat, better meat” into dinner.

Use Meat as a Flavoring Agent: Think about using a small amount of sustainable, pasture-raised meat as a way to flavor your meals. Get started by going the blended route: cut the amount of ground meat in a recipe to a quarter, replacing it with chopped mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant or another vegetable. This is great for meatballs, burgers and meat-sauces. Then try using smaller bits of meat, like smoked turkey or ham hocks, to flavor a vegetable-centered meal. You can make spaghetti carbonara with just three ounces of bacon, which means the typical 12-ounce package can stretch into four meals. One ham hock can be used to make soup for 12. A few slices of crisped prosciutto can top a salad that serves four, leaving the remainder of a six-ounce package for another meal.

Make Vegetables the Biggest Portion: Although high-protein fad diets would have you believe otherwise, the dinner plate doesn’t need to be a big piece of meat with vegetables pushed to the side. Instead, cut your typical meat serving in half. If you usually serve two chicken thighs per person, cut back to one. Choose skinnier pork chops. Flatten smaller portions of meat with a mallet to give the illusion of larger servings (after all, we eat with our eyes).Then double (or triple) the vegetables you’re eating alongside that smaller portion of meat. Many vegetables are high in filling fiber — including carrots, broccoli and beets — which will leave you satisfied without a big piece of meat. Instead of beef steak, make cauliflower steak, served with a side of salami-specked pasta salad. Instead of chicken parmigiana, make eggplant parmigiana, using a small bit of ground meat in the tomato sauce.  Mix lots of vegetables, like chopped celery, cabbage, cucumber and radish, into chicken salad to cut down the amount of chicken you use.

Get Protein from Other Sources: Many people equate meat with protein. Since most people in this country already eat nearly double the daily recommended amount of protein, giving up some of that meat is not a health concern (for most consumers). And there are plenty of non-meat sources of protein. Pantry items like beans, lentils, quinoa and nut butters, all contain good amounts of healthy protein, as do vegetables including spinach, broccoli and potatoes. There are also meat replacement options such as tofu and tempeh, which can not only mimic meat’s texture in some cases, but also provide good amounts of protein.

Focus on More Sustainable Meat Sources: When it comes to beef, chicken and pork, swapping out industrial for pasture-raised options is the first step. An additional approach is to choose more sustainable meat and fish species. The largest animals — cows and pigs — require a lot of food, energy and resources to raise, and because they are the most popular meats, these are most likely to be industrially produced. Instead, think about eating lower on the food chain by focusing on smaller animals.

Swap Vegetarian Versions of Your Favorite Dishes: Just because you are eating vegetarian, doesn’t mean you have to skip your favorites. Mark Bittman’s cookbook “Dinner for Everyone,” offers suggestions for how to turn classics veggie, including recipes for coq au vin and meatloaf. Is your favorite dinner a bowl of chili? Turn it vegetarian by using lentils or mushrooms. Craving a burger and fries? Try a flavor-packed vegetarian version.

Add Meaty Flavor: Instead of cooking with meat, call on the power of umami to add that satisfying rich flavor. This way, you won’t miss the meat you’ve cut. Miso paste and soy sauce are great as a marinade for vegetables, while sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onions can add a sweet, funky flavor to rice, pasta, gratin or other dishes. Mushrooms are packed with umami: use dried porcinis to add a kick of earthiness to soup or top just about any dish with roasted mushrooms. Looking for a smoky punch of flavor? Smoking or grilling vegetables helps give them a robust depth of flavor. You can also use spices like smoked paprika and chipotle chili to add a little smokiness to your food.

Addressing the Higher Cost of Better Meat: While it doesn’t change your weekly grocery bill, it is also worth remembering that paying more for pasture-raised meats means paying for the food’s “true cost,” including environmental and health benefits.If you cannot afford to buy or cannot locate better, pastured meat, you can focus your efforts solely on eating less meat.

Smaller Portions of Meat: The traditional “American” diet has often consisted of a large chunk of meat, with other stuff like vegetable sand starches — “sides” — around it. And while the USDA’s dietary recommendation, via their graphic “MyPlate” might have evolved to have protein play a smaller role, the reality of a lot of lunch and dinner plates is: meat is still the star. Think of meat for its flavor and texture instead of for filling you up. Many people are eating about 100 grams of protein a day, which is about double the daily recommendation of 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men” (foodprint.org).

Resources for More Information

http://eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm- information on the health benefits of grassfed animal products

https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/products/FA-AWI-FoodLabelGuide-Web.pdf – a simple consumer’s guide to food labels and animal welfare

http://www.foodprint.org – learn more about food sustainability and the various aspects

http://www.eatwellguide.org  – search for sources of local and sustainable food

https://wildlyredeemed.com/2018/09/30/september-is-local-food-hunger-action-month-and-the-perfect-opportunity-to-learn-about-how-sustainability-links-the-two/ – more on food sustainability

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