Is "Organic" Enough?
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
The first time I cooked brisket was for a New Year's Eve party (I always test recipes when I'm having company over for dinner - probably not the best time to get adventurous in the kitchen!). It was delicious but dry and rubbery.
Then I met the Instant Pot and Melissa Clark.
Everything that I have cooked out of her Dinner in an Instant cookbook has been a hit. Flavorful, simple and perfectly suited for a pressure cooker. In her intro she says,
The key to successful pressure cooking is choosing recipes in which softness and succulence is the goal, and which traditionally take hours to get there. It (an Instant Pot) can't cook a whole chicken very well, and it doesn't do crisp or crunchy. So don't ask it to and you won't be disappointed.
In essence: just because you can cook something in a pressure cooker (ie. cake) doesn't mean you should.
Well this Korean Brisket recipe she has sure highlights the strengths of the Instant Pot. It was melt-in-your-mouth good.
Beef is one of those ingredients that my clients love and fear. For decades it's be touted as an artery clogger, sure to shorten the lifespan of anyone who indulges in it due to the saturated fat content. As it turns out, we haven't gotten the whole story.
For one thing, we know now that the sugar industry suppressed data about how sugar is the foodstuff most closely linked to heart disease, not fat.
Additionally, not all fats are created equal.
You know how proteins are made up of individual amino acids? Fats are made up of fatty acids. Whether it's a saturated fat or an unsaturated fat is determined by what kinds of fatty acids are found in the fat. Each of these fatty acids has unique characteristics, including whether it promotes or protects against heart disease.
What determines what kinds of fatty acids get laid down in the fat tissue of a cow? Just like humans, animals are what they eat. Diet and environment determine the health of the animal and the benefit - or harm - eating that animal might cause.
A Tale of Two Beefs
Animals raised in an industrial food system are fed grain and silage, fuel that makes them gain weight more quickly but is generally lacking in nutritional value. Additionally, ruminant animals (bison, cows, goats and sheep) cannot digest grains well. Their digestive systems were developed to harvest nutrients and energy from grass and other plants found in a pasture. We moved these animals off pasture and into confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs or feedlots) in the 1950s when we started engineering grains and got really good at it. We needed an outlet for this bounty and livestock was an easy diversion.
Now, cattle and other ruminates can't eat grain without antibiotics. Ruminates ferment their food to digest it. They chew their cud. When a ruminate animal eats corn it produces more acid, which can wear away at the protective mucosa in its digestive tract. Over time this can cause major problems for the animal. Antibiotics keep infections in a feedlot down. They also make the animals gain weight more quickly. The use of growth hormones in food production also promotes more rapid weight gain. Where we once raised cows for 4-5 years on pasture, we can now get them to market weight in 14 months or less in a CAFO.
The engineered feed grains we grow in this country don't have much nutritional value to offer. Grass-fed, pasture-raised cattle produce beef that's higher in omega-3 fats, vitamin D, carotenoids (forms of vitamin A) and lower in saturated fat overall. The saturated fats found in grass-fed beef are comprised of fatty acids that protect against heart disease: palmitic, stearic and oleic acids.
Cows fed corn - and inevitably raised in an unsanitary and stressful environment characteristic of a feedlot setting - produce beef that is higher in omega-6 fats. These aren't inherently harmful but become inflammatory when out of proportion to omega-3 fats. Since corn-fed beef - and a standard American diet - is deficient in omega-3 fats, this is easily attained. Corn-fed beef is also higher in saturated fats that promote heart disease: lauric and myristic fatty acids.
This is a long-winded way to say: when it comes to eating beef and other meat, the source matters. Buying grass-fed beef and pasture-raised meats, dairy and eggs delivers the most nutritious food to your table. You can find these products at your local food co-op. My favorite source is direct from the farmer. I buy a meat CSA from Sunshine Harvest Farm.
Back to the brisket.
Melissa combines Korean spices with the home-down goodness of a savory roast. If you make this recipe, be sure to serve it with the kimchi coleslaw she recommends. Get the complete recipe here.
Tag me in a post if you make this brisket - I want to know how much you love it!
In my early twenties, I was working for a gardener who took me to her CSA* farm for a volunteer shift. Instead of toiling in urban backyards, we got our hands dirty in rural Wisconsin for the day. I can't pretend to remember what we farm chores we did, but the experience had an deep impact on me. I became a member of that same farm the following season and have been one every since.
I had been introduced to local foods while working at the Birchwood Cafe. Farmers delivered fresh veggies, meat, milk, cheese and eggs for seasonal menu items at the restaurant, stopping by the counter for a coffee on their way back to their farms. I got to chit chat with them there, learning about their farms and philosophies. This sneak peek at the farm-to-fork experience changed how I thought about food. Honestly, it was a catalyst for repairing my relationship with food. After raging my internal food fight for more than a decade, I welcomed the paradigm shift with open arms.
Slowly, the role of food in my life became more than calories or nutrition. It became the invitation to relationships and community. I changed my buying habits, shifting my priorities in the grocery store from cheap to local. The investment was worth it to me - I knew that with every dollar I spent I was supporting people. I fed my body well with locally grown, seasonal produce, pasture-raised meats and eggs, and in so doing also financially invested in small, family farms in my community. I sat down to meals knowing where every ingredient came from.
I fell in love with food with a face.
I couldn't have made the transition from a I-can-have-anything-I-want-whenever-I-want-it diet to one based on local foods without From Asparagus to Zucchini. When I got my first CSA box, I didn't know what half of the contents were...much less how to store or prepare them! My dog-eared copy of From A to Z got me through the learning curve, and is still a cookbook I reference today.
This cookbook is a guide to seasonal produce, grown in the Midwest. Organized by vegetable in alphabetical order, the authors give tips for choosing the best product at the farmers market, storing for lasting quality, and several recipes centered around the ingredient.
Here's another reason why I love From A to Z: every recipe comes from a farm or CSA member, NOT a chef. That means that each recipe is totally doable to cooks of all skill levels.
If you signed up for a CSA for the first time, you need this cookbook.**
If you're committed to shopping farmers markets, you need this cookbook.
If you're trying to eat more vegetables, you need this cookbook.
If you're committed to supporting small, family farms like I am, you need this cookbook.
Buy this cookbook!**
*Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a business model that allows consumers ("members") to invest in a growing season of a farm. Members share the risk of farming with the farmer. This helps to ensure that they have the income they need to make the business sustainable for them. In exchange for the investment, farmers distribute "shares" of their product. There are all kinds of CSAs now: vegetables, meat, cheese, even pie and art! The most common CSA good is vegetables. Members receive weekly allotments of the produce grown on the farm throughout the growing season. It's a win-win!
**Another way to support small, family businesses is to buy books from your local bookstore, instead of Amazon. My Minneapolis favorites are Magers and Quinn and Moon Palace. Both stores have their inventory online making it easy to see if they have what you're looking for before making the trip. You can even order books online to have shipped to you, just like Amazon.
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.