Friday, 29 November 2013

Carver Report on Land Ownership: A Good Job

It will disappoint some, but the Carver report has a lot of common sense,  is inspired in places, and should be easy for the government to support.  He drew a line in the red soil right at the beginning:

 "In the end, is this not the primary question: “What’s best for the land?”"

This will sound quaint to many, but in a Canada where resource exploitation, and deferring to corporate interests has become standard operating procedure, this is refreshing (and for some right). I can certainly hear echos of the late Angus MacLean, a former neighbour of mine, and Carver's old boss.

Now it may be easy for a well established lawyer with a government pension (and me) to  argue that trying to preserve what's left of  the top ten inches of soil is more important than the economic imperatives of bigger and cheaper at all costs, but  Carver asked many times  during the hearings: Where's the evidence that bigger farms improve the bottom line?   He says he never heard it. The evidence he did see is that soil health (measured by the percentage of organic matter) is getting worse:

"... the evidence shows that as farms have gotten bigger, soil quality has generally declined. This is a
most serious situation."
 Carver isn't ignoring the financial pressures facing farmers, or the economic logic of growing more with the capital and equipment on hand,  but argues improving soil quality (preventing erosion, raising organic levels) will increase yields and quality and that that's a better way to improve incomes rather than simply producing more.   He cops out a bit saying the province needs new agricultural policies to deal with no changes to  the lands protection act, and maybe (just maybe) starting to enforce crop rotation regulations., but farmers struggling financially wasn't his mandate to begin with. And Carver does (finally) establish the idea that land unsuitable for cropping should NOT be considered part of aggregate land holdings. And just as important there shouldn't be a lot of red tape to establish these lands.  The government will have to decide if buffer zones are part of this mix given that some farmers have lost a lot of land around waterways. And getting the leased in, leased out provisions to make more sense is an improvement too.
Perhaps the most important thing Carver did was to establish a series of values that should govern the act, the spirit of the regulations so to speak. It was an exercise to get the Federation of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union to agree on the way forward. They got close, but in the end still had differences, but these values brought them as close as they've been in decades. 

Farm organizations and the Commission
believe it is important to present these shared
values to government and to all Islanders to
let them know where these two farm
organizations stand in agreement:
The land is a public trust and, because of
this, all Islanders have an interest in its
The water, the soil and the air are also
public trusts, and all who own land have a
responsibility to protect them;
The stated purpose of the
Protection Act
is still relevant today, and
there is a continuing need for this type of
Some form of government-supported land
banking system is needed to enable more
individuals to get into farming;
Environmentally-sensitive lands ought not
to be farmed, and they must be excluded
from the aggregate land limits under the
Lands Protection Act
Farmers must be encouraged to adopt
better crop rotation practices, through
technical and financial assistance and
better enforcement of the
Crop Rotation Act
New ideas are needed to deal with the
difficult succession issues which farmers
and farm corporations routinely
The rural vistas and viewscapes which
Islanders and visitors enjoy must be
protected and preserved;
Large-scale purchase of land, also known
as ‘land grabbing’, would be harmful to
the interests of Prince Edward Island and
must be guarded against; and
Farmers need to educate non-farmers on
why farming is essential to our everyday
lives and to life itself.

It's certainly not surprising that Horace Carver wants to maintain the Act. He played such an essential role in the early 1980's to keep property rights out of the Canadian constitution to give PEI the legislative ability to do this. He wasn't going to squander that legacy, and the Ghiz Liberals knew this when they appointed him.  
Carver's report did get front page treatment in the Guardian, but was virtually ignored by the CBC which is disappointing. I would have argued  if I were still there (and no doubt lost) that this Act makes PEI a complete outlier in Canada, going completely against the political and economic forces at play in the country. Whether this is the right thing to do would have made for an interesting discussion, but we'll never hear it.  Too bad.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Where's the Beef?

I'm a social media luddite. For years I've resisted Facebook and Twitter and all of the other Google+ like offers. I do have opinions, like to share them with others, and this blog has satisfied that, and the fact that people actually read it is even better.   Two weeks ago, partially for work reasons, and definitely out of curiosity, I joined Twitter, and it's been very interesting.  I'm careful about who I'm following (basically all journalists I respect), and I've only "tweeted" a couple of times and just to re tweet other material.  Still too insecure to get in on the tweeting action, but looking for an opportunity. Can I say something meaningful in 140 characters? Not really my style.

What I have found interesting is that it's like being back in a newsroom, with all of the BS and opinions you'll hear behind the scenes, very different from the columns or reports that get written, edited, and presented to the public at the end of the day.  And when you get obviously controversial stuff like the Senate scandal, or Ford, the opinions run hard. You can see journalists egging each other on. disagreeing, arguing. Does it make the journalism better, the public better informed?  I think it does.

There's incredible sharing of information which I think is a good thing. Journalists like nothing better than to break a story, have an "exclusive", but that takes either very good luck, or lots of time, and most journalists have neither these days.  (And don't forget the trouble the British  tabloids got into demanding exclusives from their reporters.)  On Twitter some of the highest profile and smartest journalists in the country haggle through the day over what's new, what matters. There are definitely egos at work, people trying to push readers to their columns or reports,  and yes journalism is a business too.

I'd still like CTV's Robert Fife to tell us where he got the story about Nigel Wright and the $90 thousand dollar Duffy cheque. I'm really interested in what motivated the source. Is it another Christopher Montgomery trying to do the right thing, or a foe of Harper, or Mike Duffy blabbing away to pals over a drink, all of the above?

So I'm still more comfortable with 144 words, (and I don't have a smart phone) but Twitter has been stimulating (and it must be a nightmare for anyone in politics or business trying to control a message, stuff is out there in a heartbeat).

Back to basics. I have written a few times about the possibilities of grass-fed beef raised here on PEI.  PEI has excellent forage, and there appears to be growing demand for non-feedlot beef. I've read a couple of good pieces on the subject, one looking at the pluses and the minuses (always like that, but difficult to do in 144 characters).  I like the first one because it explains the important role forage (hay essentially) can play in preventing soil erosion and sucking up carbon. There have been moments when carbon trading has been proposed (know it's a bad word right now) that would actually have paid farmers to keep fields in forage as a carbon sink.

Why we don't eat beef for Thanksgiving

Should we only eat meat when it's in season?

Cow hiding behind trees
It's almost time to bid farewell to tomatoes. The stiff, tasteless orbs found in even California supermarkets come winter don't do the fruit justice, so I'll gorge myself now and then settle in for eight months of canned goods. But it's not just produce that's best at a seasonal peak: Farm animals also respond to temperature and light. In fact, some food experts believe that we should wait for the right season to eat fresh meat.
This isn't exactly a new idea. Cultures throughout history have slaughtered animals at certain times of year, and many of our traditional holiday meals—think Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham—came from this practice. Steak also was once an autumn delicacy: After the first frost, ranchers would flood the market with steers fattened on summer's pastures. But that changed after World War II, when farmers—buoyed by a large new trove of government-subsidized corn and soy—found profit in confining cattle and selling meat year-round, and most turned to "finishing" cattle on grain, breaking beef's tie to grass growth cycles. The tender meat produced this way made "corn-fed" a compliment, but by now the downsides have also become apparent: Today upwards of 97 percent of US beef is grain-fed, and livestock consume more than 50 percent of the corn produced in the United States, requiring a system of massive monoculture, heavy pesticide applications, and overtilled soils. On the other hand, well-managed permanent pasture, where grasses are dense and root systems maintained, can improve the soil, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon.
So lately, grass-fed meat has been enjoying a renaissance among both foodies and ranchers, with everyone from Whole Foods to fast-food chain Elevation Burger peddling pastured beef and lamb. But there's a catch: In order to sell their product all year long, farmers finish their grass-fed animals with hay and dry forage in the winter months. Those stored feeds are lower in fatty acids and precursors for antioxidants such as omega-3s—which make grass-fed beef healthier in the first place, says Cynthia Daley, an agriculture professor at California State University-Chico. "To optimize these antioxidants," she says, "cattle need to be finished off grass."
That's why Bill Niman, the founder and former CEO of Niman Ranch, sells his pasture-finished Black Angus beef only from early summer to fall—to take advantage of prime Northern California grazing time, which begins in spring. (The timing would be different in other climates; in Vermont, where grass remains lush through the summer, the meat would be best later.) Chefs at premier restaurants—like California's Chez Panisse and New York's Blue Hill—say Niman's rich steaks are worth the wait.
Even nongrazing animals traditionally were prepared at particular times: Farmers slaughtered hogs in the fall, after the barrows had gorged on acorns. Sausages were made when workers were finished in the fields and had time to help in the packing houses. Hams were cured all winter and ready in time for Easter. Meat birds also have a prime season: Turkeys that are allowed to forage outdoors feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter. "There's a reason why turkey was the Thanksgiving bird," says Kansas heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese. "That's when it was ready."
But buying seasonal meat at its peak isn't cheap. Niman's ribeyes, sold as BN Beef, ring in at $21.99 a pound at one San Francisco market, compared to around $12.50 per pound for the average boneless ribeye. Frank Reese's heritage turkeys cost around $9.50 a pound; supermarket turkeys go for $1.68 per pound. "Grass-fed costs a lot more because it costs the rancher a lot more to make it," says University of California-Davis livestock specialist Jim Oltjen. And the consolidation of slaughterhouses hasn't made it easier for ranchers trying to buck the system: A lot of them would prefer to process meat seasonally, but industrial abattoirs run year-round, and they don't let ranchers choose when to bring their animals in. One recent University of California study found that small-scale beef ranchers in California's Mendocino County were "hampered by significant scheduling problems" at the few USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the area.
Consumer demand could help tip the scales in favor of these small farmers. "We started with a very small group of people who cared about the seasonality of tomatoes, and that group has grown," says Maisie Greenawalt, a strategist for a large sustainable-food-focused catering company. Seasonal seafood is gaining popularity too, she says—eating wild salmon only during the summer run, for example. "There's a possibility for meat to follow that same pattern."
And what happens in February when you're hankering for a burger? "The great thing about meat is you can freeze it," Oltjen says. "It does fine." So if you're one of the growing number of omnivores adding pasture-raised meat to your diet, it might be time to invest in a chest freezer—or kiss that cheeseburger goodbye for a few months.

The Truth About Grassfed Beef

A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots, and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals.  One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”
Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly.  Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S.  Now there are thousands.
How much difference does it make?  Is grassfed really better?  If so, in what ways, and how much?

If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better.  But then, almost anything would be.  Putting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.
Cattle (like sheep, deer and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.
In today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that human can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat.  Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in.  It’s a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.
Feedlot Reality
How has a system that is so wasteful come to be?  Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces.  They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.
From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion.  This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been.  Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.
Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area.  Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place.  If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today.  But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill.  Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.
Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down.  Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.
Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster.  Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.
All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa.  But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain.  You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass.  That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system.  It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.
Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:
“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”
Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh. Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
Further, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.
It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene.  It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S.  Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.
Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment.  As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach.  But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed.  It is now nearly as acidic as our own.  In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us.  As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
Which is more nutritious?
Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.
Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues.  A grassfed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grainfed steak.
In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
What about taste?
The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost.  These differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”
Even the people who market grassfed beef say this is true.  Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”
Unlike cows in a feedlot, animals on a pasture move around.  This exercise creates muscle tone, and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many people prefer.  Grassfed beef doesn’t provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come to prefer.
What about the environment?
As well as its nutritional advantages, there are also environmental benefits to grassfed beef. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy. Growing the corn used to feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting. The animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’ wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.
Less misery on the menu?
From a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond. Pastured livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming. They are not cooped up in cages barely larger than their own bodies, or packed together like sardines for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.
Grassfed or organic?
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free.  These products come from animals who were fed organically grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots.  The sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold in the U.S. today comes from feedlots.
Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.
And then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing.  A case in point is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County, California.  Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in health food stores west of the Rockies.  The company says it is “at the forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural beef.”
But even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is meaningless.  Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a 100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley.  And the feed is not organically grown.  The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed.  Despite the marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed.  (Harris Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)
Is grassfed beef the answer?
Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do.
There is a dark side even to grassfed beef.  It takes a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the current meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger. Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population. But in a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.
What would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef? It’s been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental nightmare of epic proportions.  In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global deforestation, which is in turn responsible for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.  Even Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd, acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation.  Much of the remaining 20 percent is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu.  It is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Trendy consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef.  But grassfed and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change.  They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases:  methane and nitrous oxide.
Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis.  The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each cow produces methane emissions for a longer time.
Meanwhile, producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the slower weight gain, even more.  These emissions are not only fueling global warming.  They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
The sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a tremendous toll on the environment.  Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle spending much of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”
Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.
The USDA’s taxpayer-funded Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”
In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”
But the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.
All told, Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and who pay almost nothing for the privilege.
The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate. Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985
Not the Stiffest Competition
Grassfed beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and may be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be an improvement.
I am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound like a hamburger was truly a health food.
The competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of Coke.
Comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, far more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a modest scale.  Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat meat, dairy products or eggs, then that’s the best way to do it.
But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They are still high on the food chain, and so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins.
While grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat, or even none. If as a society we ate less, the world would indeed be a brighter and more beautiful place.  Consider, for example, the impact on global warming.  Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20 percent.  Such a change would decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars and trucks for Priuses.
If we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as ecosystems.
And there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like you to hold. And there is some truth to it.
But it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse.
The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, as indeed most of them are, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Pigs Flying... Almost

It's been a while.. I apologize.  I've been back teaching journalism, and trying to get fall work (mostly firewood) finished.

It looks like (and I hesitate to write this), that the harvest for Eastern Canadian farmers has gone extremely well. The last few Falls have seen days and days of rain, mud in potato fields,  storage problems,  and high moisture levels in soybean and corn, in other words lots of frustration. Fingers crossed that somewhat optimistic price forecasts hold.

The big news has been the announcement of a trade deal with Europe.  There will be winners and losers like in any trade agreement, well-heeled consumers the most obvious beneficiaries. It's ironic that like the U.S. Free Trade deal it took last-minute negotiating by an unpopular Conservative government desperate to make a deal for political reasons as much as anything else.  That doesn't mean it's a bad deal, just that Canada wasn't negotiating from strength. Higher drug costs alone will be a burden for people without drug plans, and stretched provincial health budgets. 

What does it mean for agriculture? I'll include a column I wrote on the impact on the dairy industry which will be negative, but let's look at what this means for the supposed winners, livestock farmers. The beef and pork producers still left have gone through very tough times, low prices and high feed costs. Getting greater access to millions of well-heeled consumers in the E.U. has to be a plus, but let's look a little closer. It will be mostly western Canadian beef and pork producers who will benefit from this. They have lower costs, and most importantly the processing capacity to go after E.U. markets. The biggest change will be in the big beef feedlots which will have to stop using growth hormones, an E.U. requirement.  If some of the western beef and pork that would normally go onto the Canadian market ends up being exported, it will certainly be a benefit to producers here (don't forget that the Maritimes doesn't produce enough beef and pork to  supply local markets). But also don't forget that the E.U. is now negotiating a trade deal with the U.S., and it will certainly include increased access for American beef and pork producers too, so Canadian (and Maritime) producers will once more be competing with much larger and subsidized U.S. production.

It would be folly for Canada not to pursue new trading opportunities given the ongoing decline in the United States.  Decades of a low Canadian dollar after the signing of the U.S. FTA  meant there was easy money shipping south of the border. Now with a stronger Canadian dollar (and yes some Dutch Disease thrown in), exporting hasn't been as profitable. But there are always unexpected wrinkles, as this recent column from Mark Bittman points out. The dairy column follows.

November 5, 2013

On Becoming China’s Farm Team

Look at the $4.7 billion purchase in September of the pork producer Smithfield Foods by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. -- the Chinese firm that counts Goldman Sachs among its backers -- from the standpoint of the Chinese. As this century’s economic titan, they had to “take a position” in United States pork. China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion is not only growing rapidly but growing wealthier rapidly, and flattering us by emulating our consumption patterns (for better or worse) while having trouble replicating some of our production systems.
China has notorious problems with food safety; urban Chinese consumers distrust the quality and safety of their own food system, and express clear preference for imported food when it is available. What to do when you are the largest pork supplier in China, you have production and quality problems, must meet the ravenous demand for more meat from hundreds of millions of paying consumers, and the international supply is abundant? You buy the world’s largest pork producer and processor, together with that firm’s vaunted supply chain, quality controls, brand value and consumer appeal.
Sadly, there may be only one potential upside to this deal for most Americans, and that one is ironic. We might see a marginal improvement in the quality of industrially produced pork by ridding it of ractopamine, a lean-meat growth stimulant whose effects on humans are sufficiently questionable that its use for meat production is illegal in the European Union, Russia and China. Smithfield says that as of June, 50 percent of its pork is ractopamine-free, the better to please its new masters.
But can Americans buy Smithfield pork without ractopamine? Maybe, maybe not. At the moment, there’s no way to know.
The other upsides are for the Chinese, and of course, Smithfield shareholders, though Smithfield executives would have you believe otherwise. Larry Pope, Smithfield’s C.E.O., who is no doubt glowing about what turned out to be a $34-per-share premium, was cheerleading in his testimony this past summer before the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He said that the purchase -- the biggest ever of a United States company by a Chinese one -- “provides enormous benefits … for American manufacturing and agriculture,” and claims it will result in more production, jobs and exports.
“It’ll be the same old Smithfield, only better,” Mr. Pope said.
The Chinese produce and consume half the world’s pigs. They have a pork strategic reserve not unlike our petroleum reserve. Really. They’ll buy more pork from us when they can and need to, but not simply because a Chinese company owns the factory. (Would you, for example, be more likely to buy a Kia if Goldman Sachs bought the Korean carmaker? For that matter, can you be certain that they haven’t?) If they did, and pork became scarcer, prices would climb; producers might consider that a good thing but consumers would not. Almost anything that reduces consumption of industrially produced meat is a plus, but reducing its production is equally important, and there’s the rub, or one of them.
The benefits for Shuanghui are crystal clear: As is the case with 90 percent of the pork produced in the United States, almost all of Smithfield’s “farms” use now standard techniques, including large (average: 2,000 pigs) concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs,in which pigs are confined, fed with legal but problematic drugs and use enormous amounts of feed, water and energy while generating giant lagoons of manure. (That Smithfield has made some progress in manure disposal and even confinement are minor if not insignificant factors when the entire production model is assessed.)
Smithfield has also bred what might be the world’s leanest and therefore most profitable pork, using genetic research paid for in part with tax dollars through public support of research at land-grant universities. Technologically speaking, the almost inconceivably huge Chinese pork industry is primitive. This is an instantaneous technology transfer that doesn’t involve spying but cash.
Given what they just outsourced, why would the Chinese not want to buy the whole shebang? According to Kai Olson-Sawyer, a research and policy analyst at the Grace Communications Foundation who has blogged extensively on this subject, “The CAFO system has major impacts on environmental and human health, rural communities and animal welfare. And basically, taxpayers pay for it all: we subsidize the production of cheap grain used as feed, and are ultimately stuck bearing the environmental, public health and socioeconomic costs of industrial livestock production.”
The fact is that China is going to be a net importer of food more or less forever: it’s got a fifth of the world’s population (and eats a fifth of the world’s food), but only nine percent of its agricultural land and scarce water resources. (The average pig takes nearly 600 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat.)
So even more than a technology grab, the Smithfield deal is a land and water grab. We still have the world’s most enviable combination of arable land, rainfall and temperate weather, and there’s no practical technological substitute for any of these. It’s the consumption of these resources, along with the manure deposits, that make the Smithfield deal, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, a form of colonization by purchase rather than conquest. In short, the deal, as Minxin Pei wrote in Fortune, is “really about owning access to America’s safe farmland and clean water supplies.”
Put aside for a moment the arguments of those who see a better way to eat and produce food more sustainably. And put aside that most Americans remain ignorant of how food is produced and the effect that production has on land, water, energy and even climate. Just say this: all agriculture has impact, which means it uses resources and leaves behind waste. We implicitly accept some of that impact because we want, for example, the pork.
The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal guarantees China the pork while offloading the downsides (the “externalities”) of pork production onto The Land of the Free. It guarantees us cropland devoted to chemical-dependent monoculture; continued overuse of water and other resources, none of which we can afford to squander; and great big stinking piles of manure. In sum, it transfers the environmental damage of large-scale pork production from China to the United States without even guaranteeing us pork with as few chemicals as that shipped to China.
Welcome to China’s farm team.

 Spilled Milk... More to Come?

It will be months before the fine print of the Canada-Europe trade deal is hammered out and made public.  The initial headlines had hog and beef farmers, and the seafood industry, winning new market access to a large wealthy market that’s still reeling from a horse meat scandal, while dairy farmers are viewed as the losers, with cheese imports from Europe more than doubling from around 13 thousand tonnes to 30 thousand tonnes.  Any Canadian production this European cheese displaces will be felt right back to the farmer supplying the milk.  Not surprisingly the response from Dairy Farmers of Canada,  the well financed lobbying arm of the dairy industry, is outrage.

Let’s look a little closer.  Almost all of the increase is for what’s called “fine” cheese.  No one seems to know quite what that means in the trade deal, but we can guess that the very good cheddar that ADL produces here on PEI for example is not considered a “fine” cheese. In Canada “fine” cheeses come from the small artisanal producers that have developed across the country over the last few years, producing several award winning cheeses. Here on PEI Chef Jeff McCourt told CBC he’s bought. moving and expanding the former Cheese Lady’s Gouda operation to produce high-end artisanal cheeses, and will be hurt by the European invasion.  In Europe dairy farmers are subsidized so can sell their milk cheaper to end users like cheese makers. Under the supply management system here, processors and consumers pay a regulated price tied to the cost of production. There are no government subsidies.

Interestingly many news stories said Canada would now be able export dairy products to Europe. That runs counter to recent  international trade decisions which have ruled that Canadian farmers can’t be involved in export markets. Tribunals have said that Canadian farmers enjoy a higher domestic price (because of supply management) and can’t use that to compete unfairly in export markets. Don’t forget that that’s exactly what European farmers do, the difference being their subsidy comes from E.U. governments rather than the marketplace. 

The other thing we don’t know is who will be licensed to import the European cheese. Up until now  Canadian cheese producers have handled any imports and simply added them to the products they offered retailers. This gave them a chance to control the marketing of imported cheese and lesson the impact on Canadian production. If the big grocery retailers get the import permits, then they’ll simply want to move as much product as possible and will do more damage to Canadian producers.  And this is where Canadian consumers will play a role. If they continue to support “local” cheese, which could be more expensive, then again the impact of the European imports won’t be as great.

The most worrying part for Canada’s dairy industry is that  market concessions were made at all. What’s to stop New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.  in the ongoing Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks from saying you’ve agreed to new European imports, we want our share of the Canadian market too.  Now the TPP is years away from a deal, and with fourteen countries all with their own agendas at the table, may never find agreement, but the dairy industry will have to redouble it’s effort to influence Canada’s bargaining position.  If New Zealand, the Walmart of the dairy business (cheap milk, cheap butter)  gets increased access to  Canadian butter and cheddar cheese markets, then PEI, New Brunswick and Quebec dairy farmers will be hit hard.  (If you want an eye-opener, google “dirty dairying” and check out the environmental impact of cheap milk production in New Zealand. You might come to like your local Canadian dairy farmer a little more.)

Canada is a trading nation and moving away from such a huge dependence on the U.S. market is a good thing. And with Europe’s higher standards for animal husbandry, and prohibition against growth hormones in beef, the deal will push some welcome changes to livestock production in Canada.  And don’t forget that the lobster stunning equipment made by Charlottetown Metal Products went to a New Brunswick company trying to hold onto its German markets. So even lobsters may get treated a little better if this deal goes through. 

So let’s keep supporting Canadian cheese makers, and worry about the next big trade deal. That’s the one that could do some real damage to dairy producers.