Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meat Eaters, Misguided

Vegans are reaching out to the public with a softer message: “Just skip meat and dairy once a week. You can do it!”

As a result, “Meatless Mondays” has gained attention as a food trend. Let’s take a look at the Meat Eaters Guide To Climate Change + Health.

Previously, I have spoken out my concerns for the environment, but I am definitely concerned for my health. My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was twelve. She survived, thankfully! I learned what an antioxidant was before I could even spell it. Every starch our family ate at the table (to my younger brother’s chagrin) was whole grain and unprocessed. Fiber here, fiber there, fiber everywhere! I spoke of my high cholesterol and potential inheritance of Alzheimer’s (3 of 4 grandparents had it) in previous posts. My fascination for nutrition and its mitigation of genetic risk factors took root in middle school. You bet I’m personally invested in this.

It is correct to say that the energy efficiency of eating vegetables is greater than eating meat.
It is incorrect to conclude that overall, eating a vegetarian diet is better for the environment. We'll see why.

Anything along the food chain that respires and does not photosynthesize costs energy to maintain, and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere along the way. This phenomenon is called the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR).

Feed conversion ratios are as follows:

                 Pounds of feed : Pounds of food produced
                                    1.2:1 Fish
                                    1.9:1 Chicken
                                    5.9:1 Pork
                                    8.7:1 Beef

This mostly has to do with how quickly or slowly the animal grows. Slower-growing animals require more maintenance energy (See “Going Hormonal Over Beef” post). A quick glance at these FCRs might make you think, oh man, beef is so inefficient! While these animals are consuming non-food grade diets (industrial co-products like soybean meal or distiller’s grains that would end up trashed), cattle have a special ability to turn cellulosic fibers into energy for meat and milk production. No mammal produces cellulase, the enzyme that releases glucose from cellulose (long chains of glucose) for utilization. Cattle and other ruminants operate symbiotically with microbes in the rumen to ferment straw, wood shavings, grasses, hulls, and other inedible materials into energy for tissue growth. The 8.7:1 ratio is efficient in its own right.

Question: For organic crop production, what are the two most important sources of fertilizer?
Answer: Manure and Compost.
            Manure, being richer in nitrogen than compost, is most important, and where, pray tell, will manure for fertilizer come from if animal agriculture is eliminated? Because manure is far less rich in nitrogen then synthetic fertilizer, even a 15% reduction in manure production (Meatless Mondays) would amount to serious consequences for the organic produce industry. Manure is a highly valuable resource that is not wasted in the animal agriculture industry.
            To create compost, biomass has to rot down. If well-aerated, it emits more carbon dioxide than methane. Those carbons, however, are not ending up in the form of amino acids and fats in animal tissues to be reused as food for humans. Vegetarian biomass waste is a large component of agricultural animal diets.

Question: What is the main culprit for the destruction of 96% of America’s Tallgrass Prairie?
Answer: Cropland

I love that all beef cattle spend part of their lives on wild, open range. The beef industry keeps wildlife habitat profitable. We all know that economic incentives help guarantee environmental protection. Cattlemen know that overgrazing, overwatering, erosion, destruction of wildlife habitat and water resources will put them out of business as cattle raisers and hunting leasers. If there weren’t a strong demand for beef, ranchers would be selling their open lands for development. I'd rather see ranched lands than plowed lands, and so would wildlife.


While the Guide acknowledged that the environmental impact of feedyard beef vs. grassfed beef is debatable, it needs an update on grassfed’s nutritional profile (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).

Also, save a few known carcinogens, there are no known CAUSES of cancer. It is irresponsible to assert that red meat causes cancer if, at best, studies are only showing correlations. I am still going to eat the recommended serving, about 6-9 oz. of lean meat a day, for highly bioavailable nutrients, protein, and MUFA:SFA ratios that are greater than 1 (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).  

If anyone has more questions, I encourage you to browse the older posts and post a comment. Many people are searching for a silver bullet to solve health and environmental problems. Accepting the “Meateater’s Guide To Climate Change + Health” is naïve.

The reality is, life is a costly and complicated thing. Trade-offs are everywhere. What do you Think?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hard to Swallow

Last week, I made “Llom amb pressecs”, a Barcelonan recipe for roasted pork loin chops in a white wine and peach sauce. I proudly sautéed Fredericksburg, TX peaches on the stovetop while store-bought pork bronzed in the oven below.

Reading this New York Times article by Mark Bittman marinated the thought of my dinner in guilt. 

Bittman sang to his typical anti-Ag-industry tune, but my appetite faded while investigating his references to “Pig 'brain machine' cripples Hormel workers" and “undercover video documents unspeakable pig abuse".

However, I recognized that these sources were showing the outlying, worst faces of the pork industry. I expect that those responsible for the abuse were prosecuted. I went quickly to the National Pork Board’s website to temper the bias.

I learned from the Pork Board that:

“Pork production contributes only one-third of one percent (0.33%) of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, every pound of pork produced in the United States today has a smaller carbon footprint than it used to have 20 years ago, due to improved production methods employed by producers over the years.  Things such as:

    * Improved feeding programs that carefully match swine diets to the nutrition needs of the  pigs' based on their sex, age and stage of growth ensures the pig's health and welfare without overfeeding nutrients that end up in the manure.

These points put many questions to rest about pork’s environmental footprint, but I still wondered about the animal welfare issues, especially the gestational sow crates. Pig brains are widely used in neuroscience experiments, given that their anatomy and development are similar to human brains. Pigs are regarded as higher-functioning cognitively than other mammals. Given that, I am curious as to what they are aware of experientially more so than other livestock. This website discusses research showing that stress levels in individually-housed (in crates) sows were equal or less than group-housed sows. This makes sense because of lower competition and less potential for injury to sows and piglets if housed in crates. Both groups had the same amount of square footage per sow.

I found this to be interesting, but if I am honest with you, I am still unsure about the justification for such a restricted lifestyle for mother pigs. I am also not an expert in pork science. Again, we return to the discussion of the post “Bitten Hands That Feed…” about laying-hen cages. More space for individually-caged animals means less production, which means more costly food, which means human beings will likely make the exchange of more food expenses for more crowded/cheaper living conditions. There is always an exchange.

I am choosing to trust that the pork industry is making the best decision given their expertise in swine husbandry and safely feeding America pork. I expect their compliance with human and animal welfare. I am not giving up on pork, just as I am not giving up on the potential for Americans to do what is right.

This is a difficult issue. What do you Think?

*Addendum: This YouTube video featuring Temple Grandin made me feel A LOT better about eating pork! 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Doubtful Dining

A salient tone of distrust resounded in three New York Times articles about meat last week:

“Our insatiable appetite for animal protein is as much of an agricultural liability as it is a nutritional one. We raise and slaughter nearly 10 billion farm animals in the United States every year (and that’s not counting fish or dairy animals.) It follows, then, that a significant percentage of our corn and soy crops are used to feed the animals that give us our much-wanted (and less-needed) protein. The intensive system of animal and crop production that is fueled by our demand for meat and milk and cheese leads to all manners of abuses: animal, environmental, farm-worker — you name it.”

[“Leads to all manners of abuses”? As someone from inside (and outside) the industry, I have never once seen abuse, but I have seen triumph in research discoveries such as those that produce more food with a reduced environmental cost. I have also seen sweet (awwww) relationships form and become reinforced between humans and the animals they care for. Abuse is not tolerated by anyone in animal agriculture]

“Our digestive system, a secondary receptor totally independent of our tongues, seems to crave calorie-dense foods like umami-rich animal proteins, no matter what they taste like.”

[Calorie dense? We receive 25g protein from180 calories in lean beef instead of from 230 calories in raw tofu, 374 calories in beans, or 670 calories in peanut butter]

“I’m aware that my choices are mostly imperfect, but I rarely conclude that I should make a burger and fries for dinner or provide a pound per person of prison-raised pork served with fruit from 10,000 miles away, followed by a cake full of sugar and artificial ingredients. Yet, for the most part, that describes restaurant food.”

[Prison-raised pork? That’s a good idea, actually…I have heard of programs that involve inmates in gardening and animal care, which could be quite therapeutic. However, I wish this author would take himself more seriously as a writer and refrain from flagrant exaggerations]

“You’ll move in the right direction, cooking and eating less meat and junk and more plants.”

[Someone is telling you to eat less meat again… Per a discussion with a registered dietitian from the Texas Beef Council, Americans actually eat the recommended amount of meat every day. They tend to over-eat carbohydrates and under-eat vegetables. Meat consumption should stay about the same]

“Nitrate and nitrite have been used for centuries to cure meat, giving products like hot dogs, bacon and ham their characteristic flavor and color and killing the bacteria that causes botulism. Today, conventional meat packers typically use a synthesized version known as sodium nitrite. But companies that label their products natural or organic must use natural sources of the preservatives. They usually employ celery powder or celery juice, which are high in nitrate. A bacterial culture is used to convert that to nitrite. The resulting chemicals are virtually identical to their synthetic cousins. When the products are packaged, both conventional and natural products contain residual amounts.”

[This affirms that chemicals are chemicals, no matter if it comes from a “natural”, “organic” or “synthetic” source. This argument parallels the arguments made for “organic” vs. “synthetic” nitrogen fertilizer discussed in the post “…Determined to Succeed!”]

“Since the 1970s, concerns about the health effects of nitrate and nitrite have focused on the potential for nitrite to combine with meat protein to form carcinogenic substances called nitrosamines.”

“The U.S.D.A. responded by limiting the amount of nitrate and nitrite that goes into processed meats, and today they contain far less than they did 40 years ago.”

[Processed meats contain less nitrate and nitrite than many vegetables do. About 85% of consumed nitrates come from plants (Van Velzen et al., 2008)]

What do you Think?