Local Meat Traveling Far to the Slaughter

Interesting article in yesterday's NYT about the lack of slaughterhouses and the increased demand for local meat. Here are my two favorite excerpts:

"Ms. Zimmerman and her husband, Kevin McCollister, would like to see the rules relaxed on farm slaughter. Their slaughterhouse is an hour and a half away — long enough for the pigs to be stressed and not in optimal shape for processing, Ms. Zimmerman said."

(Adrenaline doesn't taste very good, it turns out.)

"Helping small farmers, said [Agriculture Secretary] Tom Vilsack, will improve struggling rural economies.

But building a regional facility is not always easy. As the locavore movement and self-butchering movements grow, so do cries of 'Not in my backyard.'"


How to You Like Your Meat? Dumb or Healthy?

An op-ed in today's NYT has my blood boiling.

Adam Shriver, a doctoral student at Washington University, suggests the way to solve the problems at factory farms is to genetically engineer livestock not to feel pain. Then we can keep them sequestered in unhygienic conditions and continue feeding them grains which make them sick guilt free!

This is a typical case of fighting fire with fire. We are only now starting to see the problems with previous advancements in food production (which, by the way, were also supposedly going to be problem-free). And instead of going back to ways nature intended, i.e. allowing chickens and cattle to eat grass, we are adding more advancements by doping them with antibiotics and considering altering their genes.

Not sure what it says about me, but I am not an animal activist. Worse, I'll have to admit, I am a speciesist. While I agree that animals should not be needlessly harmed, it is the human dependence on animals for nutrition that moves me. (Vegans, most well-educated medical doctors will say you are not well fed.)

The problem with how we treat our livestock is not just the plight of the suffering animals. Humans are suffering from eating these maltreated animals. Not only has the build up of antibiotics in the food chain been linked to an array of human health problems, but the simple act of feeding animals cheap subsidized grains rather than grass, their natural food preference, has dangerously altered the balance of essential fatty acids in the average American body. (Too much Omega 6, too little Omega 3.)

As a result, Americans have increased inflammation throughout our bodies, raising our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health problems. The imbalance is also affecting our brains; Omega 6 fatty acids can cross the blood-brain barrier and trigger depressive symptoms.

Making cows too dumb to notice the acidic burn of eating grains instead of grass will not solve any of these problems.

The student concludes with a preposterous theory that knock-out genetic engineering (where a gene is omitted instead of added in) can not cause health problems to eaters. This paragraph showcases a shocking disrespect for the complexity of the genome for a doctoral student.

To be clear, an omission can be just as dangerous as an addition. It can also be just as safe. But like the "innovation" of feeding animals grains instead of grass, it can take half a century to know the effects on humans.

(I am not against innovation, Mr. Shriver, but please don't declare something safe when the truth is we don't know; people have enough trouble trusting science as it is.)

We need creative thinkers to figure out how we can raise enough livestock in a healthy and humane way, not how we can add potential new problems to the mix in attempt to assuage our collective guilt.

photo by Mykhaylo Loyish


Going Hungry on Snow Days and Everyday

One in eight Americans sought emergency food assistance last year, a 46 percent increase from 2006. But in the Big Apple the problem was even worse. Nearly half of the households with children in New York City had trouble affording food in 2009.

The existing national safety net seems to be failing, while city, state and federal budget talks are calling into question the future of not only emergency food assistance, but also broader child nutrition and poverty relief programs, according to the Food Bank for New York City.

Responding to Obama's call to end child hunger by 2015, the Food Bank is holding a policy meeting next week. Details from the press release are below.

What: Ending Child Hunger by 2015 Policy Meeting

When: Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Where: Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer

1 Centre Street, 19th Floor (Large Conference Room)

New York, NY

Please contact Frances Edwards, Public Education Associate, with questions or to R.S.V.P. by Feb .12. She may be reached at fedwards@foodbanknyc.org or (212) 566-7855, ext.1571.

photo by Robert Mizerek


Vitamin Hype

Finally! A balanced health article by Tara Parker-Pope.

Eschewing a growing tendency to just pump out the sentiments of a random press release espousing the new health claims of Nutrient X -- with perhaps, if the reader is lucky, a nod to the study's limits buried towards the end -- yesterday's article on the health benefits of Vitamin D let even headline-only readers know that the science is not solid.

In The Miracle of Vitamin D: Sound Science or Hype?, Parker-Pope let's the qualifiers take the lead. Here is my favorite paragraph:

"Although consumers may be tempted to rush out and start taking 2,000 I.U.’s of vitamin D a day, doctors warn against it. Several recent studies of nutrients, including vitamins E and B, selenium and beta carotene, have proved disappointing — even suggesting that high doses do more harm than good, increasing risk for heart problems, diabetes and cancer, depending on the supplement."

photo by Christopher Elwell


Safety in Diversity

A frozen Noah's ark is being created on a 45-acre estate in Newport, RI.

While organizations such as
Slow Food USA and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are helping to keep rare breeds alive by, well, keeping them alive, Swiss Village Farm Foundation (SVF) is conserving heritage livestock breeds by freezing their semen and embryos. They expect cryopreservation to significantly aid the conservation movement which, considering the decline in our food diversity, brings to mind two sayings: "too little, too late" and "something is better than nothing."

This is not just a matter of preserving gawk-worthy zoo novelties; it is about shoring up the health of our own species. While a diverse diet and disease resistance have long been known to go hand in hand, our modern diets -- despite the fake plethora in the cereal aisle -- are strikingly homogeneous.
According to ecologist Vadana Shiva, humans used to eat over 80,000 different species but today three-quarters of all human food intake comes from just eight plants, mostly genetically-modified corn and soy. Half of the genes in 93% of our dairy cows comes from less than 20 bulls.

The agriculture industry runs on consistency, while our bodies run on variety.

As I have mentioned before, when I compare the menu of the ancients with the menu of modernity, I can’t help but become green with envy. Exacerbating the problem, we are losing varieties within species every year.

Some excerpts from the
NYT article about SVF by Barry Eastabrook:

"As an example of how vulnerable our milk supply is, Dr. Saperstein [SVF's chief scientific adviser and chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University] points to a heat wave in California in 2006 in which some 16,500 Holsteins died, despite farmers’ efforts to save them with cooling mists of water and fans. In contrast, the Pineywoods cattle in SVF’s collection were introduced into the forests of the South by Spaniards in the 1500s specifically because they tolerated heat. In all likelihood, the hearty animals would have survived the heat wave.

“'Heritage breeds have not been continuously ‘improved’ by humans,' Mr. Borden [the executive director of SVF] said. 'They have been shaped by natural survival-of-the-fittest forces and can get along without human intervention. Typically, rare varieties exhibit good birthing and mothering abilities. They can thrive on native grasses and other natural forage, and many know how to avoid predators.'”

In the end, the article stresses,

“'We have to eat these animals to save them,' Mr. Borden said. “Ultimately, food is the reason heritage breeds are important.'”

Picture: Digitally generated Ark on Mount Arafat, by Hayk Harutyunyan