FOOD DETECTIVE: Born Again Omnivores, Part Two

by Ed Yowell, Slow Food NYC

Last month you were introduced to two vegetarians and two vegans who returned to omnivory, pig famer Mike Betit, butchers Josh Applestone and Tom Mylan, and chef George Weld.  The availability of “Farm meat,” regionally, sustainably, and humanely produced, was a factor in their latter-day conversions.  This month, you will explore the consequences of this accidental “movement” of “Born Again Omnivores.”     

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report in which 18 percent of the Earth’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions were attributed to livestock production.  Since then, according to a January 25, 2010 Time magazine article entitled, “How Cows (Grass-Fed Only) Could Save the Planet,” “livestock has taken an increasingly hard rap...At a recent European Parliament hearing titled ‘Global Warming and Food Policy: Less Meat = Less Heat,’ Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued that reducing meat consumption is a ‘simple, effective and short-term delivery measure in which everybody could contribute’ to emissions reductions.”  The article continues, “And of the animals that humans eat, none are held more responsible for climate change than the ones that moo.”

I asked butchers Josh and Tom, of the meat they sell respectively, what percentages are beef?  Josh reported 40 percent, compared to pork, 30 percent, lamb, 20 percent, and poultry, 10 percent. Tom’s experience is similar, 35 percent beef, compared to pork, 35 percent, poultry, 20 percent, and lamb, 10 percent.  Clearly, the elephant in the room is really Bossy the cow.  

The Time article continues, “Cows [conventionally raised] not only consume more energy-intensive feed than other livestock; they also produce more methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – than other animals do.”

According to Massachusetts beef cattle farmer, Ridge Shinn, as reported in Time, “’Conventional cattle raising is...unsustainable, because you’re just taking without putting anything back. But when you rotate cattle on grass, you change the equation. You put back more than you take.’”  Cattle, munching on grass, encourage new grass growth and, as they move through pasture, work manure and decaying plant material into the soil.  Grass roots in thriving pasture help maintain soil health and healthy soil keeps carbon underground.  This system, called Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG), relying on soil, sun, water, and the natural proclivities of cattle and complementary species, like chickens, is very different than the way most cattle are raised conventionally.  The Time article quotes Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” saying, ‘“Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain (corn and soy) to feed the animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, [and] transportation. Grass-fed beef has a lighter carbon footprint.’”  The article continues, “Indeed, although grass-fed cattle produce methane... their [total] emissions are lower because they help the soil sequester carbon.”  

And, about methane, The New York Times, on June 5, 2009, in an article entitled, “Greening the Herds: A New Diet to Cap Gas,” reported, “Since January [2009], cows on 15 farms across Vermont have had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flax seed – substances that, unlike corn and soy, mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat…spring grasses are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help the cow’s digestive tract operate smoothly [thereby producing less methane]. Corn and soy, the feed that, thanks to postwar government aid, became dominant in the dairy industry, has a completely different type of fatty acid structure.”        

The Times article reports that, “As of the last reading in mid-May [2009], the methane output of... [a Vermont] herd [with access to pasture in addition to feed] dropped 18 percent.”  According to the article, results of similar tests in France, with herds that had been exclusively on feed, “have been far more significant… [achieving] about 30 percent [methane reductions]…”

Author Michael Pollen and others have taught us about industrial meat production.  It is three times bad.  First, it is bad for the animals - unnaturally confined and fed hormones to make them grow and antibiotics to keep them alive.  Second, it is bad for the environment – involving conventional production of animal feed, depleting land and poisoning waters, long-distance, fossil fuel-fed transportation, and vast amounts of concentrated animal waste despoiling landscapes.  And, third, it is bad for our health - the meat less healthy, even unhealthy, particularly in the case of corn-fed beef cattle.

Massachusetts farmer Ridge Shinn and the Vermont tests indicate that raising pastured cattle can be sustainable. What about us, the eaters, what do we get out of the meat of humanely and sustainably raised animals?

In terms of health, an entry entitled, “Health Benefits of Grass-fed Products,” at eatwild (www.eatwild.com), states that, “Meat from grass fed animals has two to five times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals.  Meat and dairy products from grass-fed ruminants are the richest source of...conjugated linoleic acid or CLA.  When ruminants are raised on fresh pasture alone, their products contain three to five times more CLA than products from animals fed conventional diets.  In addition to being higher in omega-3 and CLA, meat from grass-fed animals is also higher in vitamin E…four times higher…than meat from feedlot cattle.”  

An article published by California State University-- Chico, titled, “Effect of Ration on Lipid Profiles in Beef,” (www.csuchico.edu), states, “Diet significantly altered the lipid profiles within beef.  Grass diets produced a product lower in overall SFA (saturated fats), higher in PVFA (polyunsaturated fats), and a more desirable omega-6 to 3 ratio.  Grass-based rations increased CLA by 50 percent and omega-3 FA (fatty acids) by 40 percent.

In terms of taste, grass-fed beef farmer, Ridge Shinn, in a 2007 interview with Cattle Network (www.cattlenetwork.com) titled, “Five Minutes with Ridge Shinn,” stated, “Gourmet beef …is tender and tasty.  All beef should be gourmet.  Over the years, in its quest for volume, the cattle industry lost site of quality…(prizing) pounds of beef and size of frame.  The result is lower quality and tougher beef…What most people find remarkable is that we can produce beef that is marbled and tender on a grass-fed diet…”

Nutritionist and author Marion Nestle, in an interview published in the daily green, (www.thedailygreen.com) titled, “Are Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Healthy?” says, “Full disclosure, I eat meat.  Humans are omnivores and I am one nutritionist who subscribes to basic, if banal, principles of healthful diets: variety, balance, and moderation.”   She continues, “With that said, it is not necessary to eat meat.  I can think of plenty of advantages to not eating meat, to eating less meat, or eating meat that is produced in ways that are far better for the health of animals, people, and the planet.”

Mother and food author Nina Planck agrees, and goes a bit farther, saying to me, “God, or nature, if you prefer, created us omnivores.  We are part of a great food chain.  The ethical and ecological choice is traditional meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs.  You can just about swing it as a vegetarian by eating tons of high-quality (pastured) butter and eggs. When I came back to omnivory after years in the vegan, vegetarian, and low-fat wilderness, my chief pleasure was chicken fat.  But the rewards were multiple.  I was no junk-food vegetarian, but my health was transformed when I started to eat traditional fats, real meat, and wild fish.  And may I add about the five-year-olds who are apparently pressuring parents to go vegetarian.  Five-year-olds, and my own three-year-old, want a lot of things that aren’t good for them.  I don’t recommend letting toddlers determine major household policy when they aren’t in a position to know better.”

Eating meat, that is regionally, humanely, and sustainably produced, can be good for the planet, animals, and eaters, but is it just an elitist, foodie affectation beyond the caring and reach of everyone else?  Can an unhealthy system of meat production be converted to a healthy one capable of feeding a nation of conscious omnivores?  

Dan Gibson, farmer of Grazin’ Angus Acres, in Ghent, New York, grass feeds, and finishes, his Black Angus beef cattle -- no grain at all for his cattle.  Dan attended a May, 2010 Slow Food NYC Slow U seminar, previewing a video titled “Green Beef,” a documentary about Grazin’ Angus Acres by Michael Crupain, of The Dairy Show.  Speaker Dan, to make a point, said that we, in this country, are capable of sustainably and humanely producing enough meat to match and exceed the amount of unsustainably produced meat we eat now.  

I called Dan on this and he cited as his source, an academic paper, titled, “Responsibly Feeding America: The Beyond-Organic, Sustainable Model,” written during 2010 by an acquaintance attending Yale, Trevor Kempner.  The paper was written by Trevor for a course taught by John Wargo, Professor of Environmental Risk Analysis and Policy at Yale.  In the paper, Trevor used data about Joel Salatin’s sustainably managed Polyface Farm, as described in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and from the United States Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov).  

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen recounted that self-described “grass farmer,” Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, “By the end of the season…will have transformed [his grasses] into some 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs.”  Pollen continues, “This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from 100 acres of pasture….”       

Trevor projected the food calorie output of Polyface Farm against the national inventory of pasture and grassland if used in the Polyface MIRG model.  Trevor concluded that about 70 percent of our national caloric requirement could be met sustainably.  This matches caloric output of the land used conventionally, Trevor concluded.  So what is the difference?  Simply, the inputs and outputs of conventional livestock production are damaging to the environment while the inputs and outputs of sustainable livestock production are actually beneficial to the environment.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen wrote, “…yet what is perhaps still more astonishing [about the output of Polyface Farm] is the fact that this pasture will in no way be diminished by the process – in fact, it will be better for it…”  

Pollen continued, “It’s true that prodigious amounts of food energy are wasted every time an animal eats another animal – nine calories for every one we consume.  But if all that energy has been drawn from the boundless storehouse of the sun, as in the case of eating meat off this [Salatin’s] pasture, that meal comes as close to a free lunch as we can hope to get.”   

An article entitled, “Cropping Super-sequestration Options Pack Big Carbon Wallop,” by Krista Hozyash for The Rodale Institute (www.rodaleinstitute.org) begins, “‘We’ve not yet begun to sequester,’ is the rallying cry for a new group of agriculturists,”  The article continues, “Mixed farming that incorporates (nitrogen fixing) leguminous grassland in ley/arable rotations builds up fertility in soils and improves capacity for carbon storage….Steering practices away from intensive production of white meat and grain-fed beef helps offset the impact of livestock methane emissions as operations improve soil quality and avoid artificial petroleum-based inputs…Periods of grazing stimulate grass root re-growth and soil biomass additions while improving…the development of soil organic matter, also increasing soil carbon storage ability…in the [Kyoto] protocol, terrestrial ecosystem sequestration [was] identified as [an] effective…[strategy] for climate mitigation.”

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollen writes, “…if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.”

Mike, Josh, Tom, and George, members of an accidental movement, may be, with farmers like Joel Salatin, Ridge Shinn, and Dan Gibson, at the leading edge of a movement that could lead to the demise of the unsustainable meat production practices of government subsidized agribusinesses, leaving responsible omnivores to the joys of guiltless chicken fat, bacon, and hamburgers.