I don't know about you, but I have a very clear image in my mind about where my food comes from...and it is NOT based in reality.
In this fantasy world of mine, cows eat grass and roam lush pastures, chickens eat worms and roll in the dirt and rows of colorful vegetables collect dew into the sunset.
Isn't that picturesque?!
The truth is, an estimated 99% of animal products come from factory farms (aka "concentrated animal feeding operations" or CAFOs) and only 2% of American farmland produces vegetables (1, 2). What's happening on the remaining arable land? It's being used to produce corn, soy and other commodity crops that are routinely sprayed with herbicides and then fed to livestock or processed to unrecognizable additives to processed foods.
This truth bomb really bums me out.
For those of us who care about what our food dollars fund, we have looked to organics for standards we can stand by. We've entrusted this certification to provide us with ethical, humane and environmentally-kind foods. Foods that are more nutritious and healthier for our kids and ourselves. Foods that cost more, so must be worth something, right?!
While I do think that investing in certified organic foods is beneficial to the planet and to our bodies, I do not think this certification represents the ethical and humane standards that we assume when we see that label.
In grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and other edible plants:
For meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, the rules are expanded to include some details about the living conditions for the livestock, but organic certification mostly ensures that the animals are fed an organic diet and that their byproducts are not contaminated by mingling with non-organic meat/milk/eggs/etc. Here's where organic certification starts to fall short, in my opinion:
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
"All organic livestock and poultry are required to have access to the outdoors year-round." This criteria sounds like it's meeting my dreamy expectations that animals are out on pasture, living their best lives, right?! The unfortunate truth is that livestock being raised organically can still be raised in CAFOs. This means crowded, stressful and unsanitary living conditions for the animals, leading to increased risk of illness, injury and premature death.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Ruminant animals have 4 stomachs and digest by fermenting their food - they chew their cud. Cows, goats and sheep are the most commonly consumed ruminants in the US, but bison and deer also digest their food this way. This magical digestive process turns grass (a nutrient-rich plant that humans cannot digest) into nutrient-packed milk and meat.
Organic certification standards require that ruminant animals are fed grass and other pasture...but it only needs to meet 30% of their dietary needs. Corn and other grains can make up the difference. This is advantageous to ranchers because grain-fed livestock gain weight more quickly than grass-fed livestock, quickening their pace to the slaughterhouse (the less time it takes to reach market weight, the less care an individual animal needs and the quicker ranchers can turn their investment into profit). Additionally, grain is cheaper to produce than grass.
However, grain-fed diets are not good for ruminate animals or for consumers. The fermentation of grains produces excess acid that damages a cow's digestive tract over time. For consumers, grain-fed meat and dairy also poses potential health risks. These products are higher in inflammatory fats and lower in nutrients.
What's not defined in organic standards are just as important as what is. What's missing? Requirements how the animals are handled. Organic certification allows beaks and tails to be removed and wings to be cut. This is done to animals that are often only days old and without any anesthesia or pain medication. There are reports of chronic pain and phantom limbs (chickens use their beaks like an arm).
The purpose? To prevent the animals from harming others when they're frustrated and stressed in crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
As a holistic health care provider who is obsessed with seeking out the root cause, this really gets my goat. Why don't we just improve the living conditions of these animals and leave their beaks and tails alone?! It's better for them and ultimately it's better for us. Meat, poultry, dairy and eggs that come from animals who are raised outdoors and fed diets that they would consume in the wild are more nutritious and less disease-promoting.
Feedlot settings on their own are inhumane, in my opinion. The definition of a CAFO and how many animals can be housed under the same roof varies somewhat from state to state, and even from county to county. Ultimately, though, thousands of chickens, turkeys, pigs and dairy cattle will be kept indoors for their entire lives. They eat, sleep and shit in the same spot. The air they breathe is polluted with their waste. They are crowded - so crowded that some livestock will be injured or even killed by being trampled.
It is not a good scene, organic or otherwise.
So is organic enough? Not for me. I think it falls short in many ways. I do appreciate that organic certification keeps farmland out of conventional food production, which I really do believe is better for the planet, for farmers and for eaters. That said, I want more from my food than what organic provides, especially when it comes to animal products.
Keep an eye on this blog if you are interested in this area. In the coming months, I'll be posting more about the production and consumption of animal products and other matters of the food system.
As eaters, we're responsible for steering the food system in the direction we want it to go. Every time we buy food, we're voting, telling food producers "I want more of that!" So know your food and put your money behind it.
1. U.S. Factory Farm Estimates Sentience Institute
2. The Healthy Farmland Diet: How Growing Less Corn Would Improve our Health and Help America's Heartland Union of Concerned Scientists
3. Organic Standards United States Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Services
When I was at the University of Minnesota finishing my undergraduate degree, I found myself in line for the microwave in the student lounge with the Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. He asked what I studied and when I told him I was in the Nutrition Dietetics program, he asked what motivated me to take that direction.
"I'm interested in local food systems," I replied.
In response, he said something to the effect of, "I like the idea of local foods, but I can really only eat so many turnips and rutabagas, so it loses me come wintertime."
At the time, I honestly didn't know how to respond. I probably laughed, blushed, and went back to my lunch, but the conversation stuck with me all these years. At the time, I think turnips and potatoes probably were among the few local foods that we available in the midst of the cold season (you see, edible plants don't grow too well under several feet of snow...). Over the coming years, we strengthened our local economy and farmers followed demand. The MN Department of Agriculture and the USDA both provided grants and loans for building season-extending infrastructure on farms to provide Midwesterners with carrots, beets, onions, garlic, winter squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes and even some cold-hardy greens in the winter. Last year I bought locally-grown carrots at my neighborhood grocery store all the way into the spring! I don't know about you, but that makes my heart warm...and my mouth water - winter carrots are the sweetest!
The global market is an incredible thing (it's also deeply flawed, but that's a conversation for an environmental economist to tackle and for me to sit in the back of the room cheering). The global market brings citrus and avocados to Minnesota, where it's going to take several more decades of global warming before we can grow those on our home turf. This market also puts a huge variety of foods in front of us at every grocery store. And while the variety and creativity that selection offers is exciting and probably nutritionally beneficial, it also disrupts our connection to the physical world we live in.
Here's an example:
In Minnesota, tomatoes, watermelon and cucumbers are ready to harvest in the heat of the summer. These foods are full of water and electrolytes, which help balance the amount of sweat we produce in the humidity and heat. They cool us down while replenishing our body fluids. That's needed at that time of year.
Now we move forward a few months and the temperatures drop. Our bodies are working hard to stay warm. The last thing we need is to eat cold foods like salads, smoothies or ice cream, or cooling foods like raw tomatoes, watermelon and cucumbers when goosebumps are a permanent accessory to our outfits.
So what is a way of eating this time of year that supports balance and restores harmony in our bodies?
If you start feeling the pot roasts and mashed potatoes settle into your middle section, send the extra insulation your gratitude. When we remember that we are part of the animal kingdom, it makes good sense that we'd put on a little extra weight for the cold season. Before you consider skipping lunch or following some fad diet, reassure yourself that spring is coming. And with it comes lighter foods, longer days and restless energy just waiting to take you for a jog. Spring is a season primed for detoxification and lightening up.
You are part of this beautiful planet, remember that. So put on a few pounds and stay in touch. I'll share some tips for losing it when the time comes to do so.
When you're trying to get 9-13 servings of veggies in everyday, you have to start at breakfast. And what a delicious challenge it is! I've been sharing my favorite "V for B" ideas on Instagram lately. Here's one more winner to add to your repertoire.
Makes 4-6 servings
Ingredients for the Hash
If you have a home garden, chances are you are flush with raspberries right now!
I don't eat much fruit because as far as I'm concerned fruit is only good when it's in season and close to the source. Living on the North Coast means we have a small window in time to enjoy fresh berries, cherries, apples and pears.
I grow two varieties of raspberries - red and yellow - and plan to add a black raspberries next spring. Our berry vines are overflowing with summer bounty right now, so every night I'm out picking fruit...and shoving it right in my mouth!
Raspberries bring something special to the table - more than just deliciousness. They are the best source of ellagic acid, a polyphenol (antioxidant) nutrient that has potent anti-cancer activity. In animal studies, ellagic acid has slowed the growth of cancer cells and helped make them inactivate1.
Ellagic acid also shows up in research on beauty and aging, showing some promise for reducing wrinkles and skin damage caused by UV-B rays (that will make my mom happy)2. Can you imagine your esthetician advising you to eat more raspberries for your skin health? Best. Homework. Ever!
The power of plants continues to awe and amaze me.
While I love fresh raspberries more than anything, I just cannot keep up with the volume of raspberries coming in from my backyard (can I just say what an awesome problem that is to have?!). I'm not much of a baker and try to limit my sugar intake anyway, so this week I worked on a new smoothie recipe that combines a couple of my all-time favorite anti-cancer ingredients. For fun, I made it a little thicker than you can slurp through a straw.
Hope you like it!
Matcha Berry SmoothiE Bowl
I love food.
I love thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it. I love growing food, cooking and eating food. I use this space to try to convey that. Follow me on social media for more day-to-day inspiration on these topics.