Thursday, December 24, 2015

Necessary Steps

Since my last post, I have moved across the country, started a new job, and had a baby. With all of that going on, perhaps it’s no surprise that I have yet to find a new farm from which to buy ethical, sustainably-raised meat. Instead, we’ve been relying on Whole Foods. Through their signs and labels, Whole Foods provides its customers with information about the farming and production practices involved with their meat and, supposedly, has a higher standard than most grocery stores. Up until now, I’ve been mostly taking it on faith, and the word of the employees at the meat counter, that buying meat at Whole Foods is a better choice for the animals, environment, and workers than shopping elsewhere. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Animal welfare is one of my main concerns when it comes to meat. I’d like to think that the animals I eat have only one bad day. That’s far from the case in conventional meat production. Efficiency seems to be the hallmark of the conventional approach. Part of upping efficiency is increasing the number of animals that can be kept in any given operation and strictly controlling the environment in which the animals live.

Because chicken, pigs, and cows do not typically live indoors in highly-concentrated groups, conventional farmers have to take many extra measures to keep the animals alive until they make slaughter weight. For example, when chickens are kept in crowded pens, they peck at each other, which can lead to injury and reduce their value. The solution in conventional farming is to remove the beaks of the chickens. Similarly, when pigs are confined and crowded, they express their natural desire to chew on things by nipping at their neighbors’ tails. To discourage this behavior, farmers routinely cut off the pigs’ tails, leaving only a sensitive nub. That makes it much more painful to be chewed on, causing the pigs to fight back and dissuading the pigs from chewing on each other. The idea that causing animals more pain is a better solution that simply enabling animals to behave naturally highlights the unfortunate priorities of our food system.

Similar to the animals, our environment suffers from conventional farming practices both from the monoculture cropping systems that generate animal feed and the animal operations themselves. When animals are raised in more natural conditions, where they are able to express their natural behaviors, eat the foods they evolved to consume, and contribute to the farm ecosystem, the animals and the environment benefit. A wholly integrated farm is the ideal, but there are many ways in which the lives of farm animals can be improved and are worth supporting.

The Whole Story

Whole Foods uses a tiered rating system for its chicken, pork, and beef. The ratings actually come from the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), which evaluates farms based on long lists of animal-specific metrics. The ratings go from 1 to 5+, and they are color-coded from orange to yellow to green. Higher ratings represent farms that are more animal-centered, meaning that animals are more able to express their natural behaviors. In general, Steps 1 – 3 apply to farms that are more conventional in nature (i.e. animals in enclosed, controlled environments) with many enhancements for the well-being of the animals. Steps 4 – 5+ are for farms that are pasture-centered, meaning that the animals live mostly outdoors in more appropriate environments. All of the chicken, pork, and beef sold at Whole Foods has received at least a Step 1 rating. 

Even farms with the lowest rating, Step 1, have taken significant steps to improve the welfare of their animals over conventional practice. Many common physical modifications, including tail docking (pigs) and debeaking (chickens), are not allowed even in Step 1 farms. By Step 5, no physical alterations are allowed.

Another major consideration when evaluating farms is the concentration of animals. Crowded pens and crammed cages are not allowed. At Step 1, all animals must be able to move about. Chickens must have enough space to flap their wings without touching one another, while pigs and cows must have enough space to exercise, lie down, and move freely. Cows must also spend at least 2/3 of their lives on pasture.

Antibiotics and growth hormones are also disallowed at any step, and animals can never be fed by-products of other animals. Antibiotics, particularly medications that are intended to cure diseases in humans, are frequently used in conventional animal production. In fact, their use is on the rise despite the FDA advising a ramp down. Such pervasive usage is leading to drug-resistant strains of diseases that we used to be able to treat with antibiotics. For more on this important topic, read these recent articles from Mother Jones and Scientific American. Because Whole Foods only carries GAP-rated chicken, pork, or beef, it all comes from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. 

There are many other factors that go into the ratings evaluation, which can be found on the Global Animal Partnership website as well as in pamphlets available at Whole Foods. Meat that carries a GAP rating is clearly better in terms of animal welfare than that found at most grocery stores. I definitely feel better about buying even a Step 1 product than buying conventional meat, but I would much prefer to buy Step 3 through 5+ meat whenever possible. At the Whole Foods where I shop, there are a lot of beef products with ratings of 4 and 5. Much of it comes from Eel River Ranch in California, a Step 4 organic* farm that raises cows on pasture. There is also Step 3 and 4 chicken from Mary’s Chickens. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen over the past few months, the selection of pig products is currently limited to Step 1. While we still purchase these products, we now eat a bit more chicken and beef than pork. Some packaged products at Whole Foods are also GAP-rated, including some deli meats from Applegate Farms, evol frozen meals, and Krave jerky. You can see the full list of GAP-rated products on their website.

Although we still plan to join a farm CSA for our meat, if one is available in our new hometown, it is still good to know that we can pick up meat from our local Whole Foods without abandoning our commitment to ethical animal products. Plus, we are using our food dollars to support the GAP ratings program, which promotes better industry practices, and to show Whole Foods that we value ethically-sourced meat and the information that enables us to identify it. All that adds up to a whole lot of piece of mind.

* - A farm’s designation as certified organic is not evaluated as part of the Global Animal Partnership rating system. They are complimentary but quite different sets of metrics.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Future Frontier of Agricultural Science

Last December, I was honored to attend the Japanese-American Frontiers of Science symposium in Tokyo, Japan. Frontiers of Science symposia (FoS) are organized by the U.S. National Academies of Science, the Kavli Institute, and leading science organizations from around the world – in my case, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The symposia are designed to bring together young researchers from a wide variety of fields, which offers scientists the opportunity to learn the state of the art work being done in other areas and network across the typical boundaries of expertise. In my case, I was the only planetary scientist at a symposium of about 70 participants, and the range of topics included the mathematics and applications of origami, development of a new standard by which we define the kilogram, and the human microbiome. Although jam packed, the sessions were very stimulating and generated great discussions both during and outside of the sessions.
"Any time you do something new in origami, you have to make a bunny."

A little microbiome humor to lighten the mood.
The session I was most looking forward to was Climate Change and Food Security. I hoped the session would focus on agricultural methods that enhance crop resiliency and require fewer resources. The talks began with an overview of the many ways climate change will continue to challenge our abilities to grow food, as well as the growing concern over so-called “hidden hunger”, the widespread lack of nutritious food so severe that it impairs normal growth and function of human beings. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition, and poor nutrition is responsible for 45% of deaths of children under 5 [1][2]. The speakers all acknowledged that it is lack of nutrition that will be the next big problem facing humanity. However (and somewhat inexplicably), they then focused on methods of producing “a bigger pile of corn”. That’s right, the session was all about the successes of biotechnology at developing more productive crop varieties.

Quantity vs. Quality

After the talks, the participants asked many critical questions about the biotech approach to food security such as its economic viability in poor countries and issues with soil degradation and water usage. What bothered me the most was that the speakers said nutrition is, and will continue to be, our biggest challenge, but the biotech advances they described do not address nutrition at all. In fact, in the US, most genetically-modified crops (especially corn and soy) are made into food additives and sweeteners, like corn syrup and soy lecithin, rather than actual food. In poorer parts of the world, as one of the speakers pointed out, even industrial-grade corn is used as a food – served as something like porridge. While still largely devoid of nutrition, at least corn does supply edible calories for the very poor.

After the session, I approached two of the speakers* to ask more about the challenges of nourishing the world. The first person I talked to often works in Africa and knew a lot about the particular hardships for poor farmers. She agreed that a good approach to creating nutrition security (rather than caloric security) would be to focus on crops that are inherently nutritious. Whether through changes in agricultural methods, selective breeding, or gene splicing between species, creating more resilient nutritious crops – think lentils and kale rather than corn and soy - must be part of the solution. Unfortunately, the speaker could not think of any researchers currently working on enhancing the yields or the sustainability of nutritious food.

She also pointed out a potential flaw in my analysis of the caloric needs of different countries, which was based on population studies by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In that study, the caloric needs of a population are determined by age and sex demographics. However, occupation is not taken into account. Farmers, day laborers, or women who trek tens of miles a day for clean drinking water are afforded the same caloric requirement as a typical person, but their actual needs are much higher. Even a person getting 1800 calories a day may be nearly starving because of the exertion required for their daily life. One of the findings of my study was that almost all countries, even those with 30-50% of their populations being classified as food insecure, actually had enough calories to feed everyone. However, based on this new information, it seems likely that income inequality means the poor not only have less access to those calories, they also need more than the FAO has estimated because of the hardships of poverty. In that case, having more available calories could, hypothetically, reduce food insecurity, but only if the impoverished people within the country can actually get more food. And, of course, none of this addresses the availability of nutritious food.

A Culture of Condescension

My discussions with the next speaker were much more troubling. When I broached the subject of growing or breeding more nutritious crop varieties for use in poor countries, he said it wouldn’t be effective because the people in those countries wouldn’t eat the food. They have a culture of non-nutritious foods, he said, using rice as an example. Better to engineer staple crops like corn and rice to have more nutrients and let the poor eat what they like.

I found this attitude, frankly, appalling. The idea that poor people can’t recognize the value of a diverse, nutritious diet is insulting. Assuming that impoverished people in southeast Asia eat a diet of mostly rice because that is their culture neglects the role that poverty has played in restricting diet diversity over time. While the diversity of traditional diets is something I will need to learn more about, it seems unlikely that the nutrient deficiencies currently causing widespread blindness and stunted growth throughout poor populations have been present throughout their histories. In any case, people living in extreme poverty deserve better than to have their nutrition slipped into their rice like parents of a stubborn toddler hiding vegetables in their kid’s pasta sauce.

Another Seat at the Table

The issue of population growth came up many times throughout the session and side conversations throughout the symposium. Because population is increasing, proponents of biotechnology will say that we need to produce more calories even if they are not nutritious. Otherwise, people will starve. There are two problems with this approach. First, as long as the population continues to increase, food production will always have to increase to keep pace. Maybe we can keep squeezing our resources and reducing the nutritional quality of our food to produce more calories, but this seems like a race to the bottom. The other problem is that people need more than calories. It sounds unconscionable to let people starve, but is it any more ethical to give people just enough calories to survive knowing that the lack of vitamin A, for example, will lead to blindness and death? In my opinion, there is no point in creating more calories if we cannot produce nutritious calories because lack of either is too often a death sentence.

In addition to researching nutrition-based approaches to food insecurity, slowing population growth is critical to a sustainable food future. As one speaker pointed out, the advances of biotechnology are not expected to outpace the pressures of population growth on the food supply – not by a long shot. Luckily, the methods for slowing population growth are known. Lift people out of poverty, and they have far fewer children. This is especially true for women because impoverished women have so few opportunities. Becoming a wife and mother is their only value within a society. When women are educated and have access to jobs and careers outside the home, they have a source of economic stability that gives them more freedom to choose when and whether to have children, and they usually choose to have fewer children overall.

Nourishing the world is a harder and more critical long-term problem then feeding the world, but that is the actual problem facing humanity. Producing more calories that are not nutritious or raising crops in ways that degrade or deplete vital resources are false solutions. We need to focus on developing sustainable agricultural practices that produce more nutritious food. We also need to empower the poor, especially women, to both slow population growth and reduce the extra caloric burdens of poverty. This is the true frontier of science, a worldwide humanitarian effort, and a moral imperative.

*Although the names of the speakers are available on the internet, I’m withholding them here because some of what I describe stemmed from side conversations rather than their talks. It’s possible that I misunderstood their comments or that they would have provided more context in a different setting. In any case, I have tried to describe our interactions as best as I can remember them.