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    Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

    “What’s Organic About Organic?”: Takeaways

    woaologoYesterday afternoon, I attended a screening for “What’s Organic About Organic?”, a neat new documentary by Shelley Rogers that illustrates the differences between organic and conventional farming, highlights the challenges that many small organic farms face, and touches on issues that fall outside the scope of organic certification.  You can watch the trailer here!

    The darkness of the screening room was no match for my trusty notebook and pen.  Here are notes, factoids, quotes and questions I jotted down as I watched:

    • One organic farmer explains that conventional apples are sprayed with chemicals that are specifically created to withstand rainstorms.  He then poses the question, “how big of a rainstorm can you produce in your kitchen sink?”
    • Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., environmental health scientist and consumer advocate, explains that most agricultural pesticides are simply diluted versions of chemicals originally created for chemical warfare.
    • Colorado organic farmer Andy Grant recounts an anecdote that truly stuck with me.  One day, as a young boy growing up on a farm, he spotted a few grasshoppers that had been sprayed with insecticides jumping close to where his dog was laying.  As a result of the insecticides’ effects on their nervous systems, the grasshoppers were jumping erratically.  This caught the attention of his dog, which ended up eating one or two.  The dog died soon thereafter.
    • Sewer sludge is commonly– and legally — used as fertilizer in conventional farming.
    • Current USDA organic guidelines do not touch upon issues of agricultural workforce.  Some farmers believe that the organic seal should also reflect humane treatment of farm workers (i.e.: providing safe working conditions, providing healthcare, etc.).
    • The best part of the documentary, in my opinion, is a 10 to 15 minute segment in which a conventional dairy farm is juxtapositioned with an organic one. In the conventional farm, the cows are milked three times a day, subsist on an unnatural wheat diet, and are often injected with a wide variety of medications and antibiotics to treat the multitude of symptoms and diseases that are a direct result of their living conditions.  At the organic farm, cows are exclusively pasture-fed.  We also learn that cows’ symptoms (i.e.: diarrhea) are treated with herbs.  As farmer Jim Gardiner explains, a lot of weeds that are considered “nuisances” in conventional farming are powerful medicines for cows.

    I definitely recommend watching this if you get a chance.  It’s not only informative, but also a wonderful “organics 101” for people who may not be fully aware of the issues that pop up with conventional farming practices.  I also appreciated the humanizing aspect of focusing on a small handful of organic farmers.

    Click here to remain informed about future screenings.

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    Gummy Bears, Chocolate Cake, and Feathers: A Day In The Life Of A Cow’s Diet

    cows2Think cows’ unnatural agribusiness diets of corn, wheat, and soy are bad?  It gets worse.

    Much, much worse, according to this paper by Randy D. Shaver, PhD of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    I highly recommend you leaf through that paper.  Here are some highlights of permitted — and commonly used! — foods for cattle:

    • Blood Meal. “Blood meal is produced from clean, fresh animal blood, exclusive of all extraneous material such as hair, stomach belchings, and urine except in such traces as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes. Types of blood include conventional cooker dried, flash dried, and spray dried.”
    • Hydrolyzed Feather Meal. “Product resulting from the treatment under pressure of clean, undecomposed feathers from slaughtered poultry.”
    • Candy. “Candy products are available through a number of distributors and sometimes directly from smaller plants. They are often economical sources of nutrients, particularly fat. They may be high in sugar and(or) fat content. Milk chocolate and candy may contain 48% and 22% fat, respectively. They are sometimes fed in their wrappers. Candies, such as cull gummy bears, lemon drops or gum drops, are high in sugar content.”

    Apparently, then, feathers and gum drops do have something in common — they are fed to our cows.  Gross.

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    Is Agriculture The Next Wall Street?

    normal_iil-ian-aj-0163The economic crash of 2008 forever changed the financial landscape.  Consumer confidence sank, investors balked, construction projects around the world halted, and recovery is expected to continue well into the next decade.

    I can’t help but think of Wall Street’s most recent implosion as a possible preview of what may happen with agriculture in the United States.

    After all, the economic crash was the end result of an unsustainable financial system.

    I use — as well as italicize and underline — the word “unsustainable” because it also happens to describe our food system.

    We are, currently, at the peak.  It all appears to be going well, as far as most people are concerned.  Fast food chains offer plentiful food for low prices, while the amount of available calories for each American is at an all-time high.

    You can’t help but wonder, though, how sustainable is the current agricultural system?  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer is “not very”.

    Increased pesticide and herbicide use over the past three decades has poisoned bodies of water and severely altered biosystems.  Cattle-feed operations produce millions of tons of manure each year, placing a huge burden on the environment.  Fish farms pollute nearby waters.

    There is no possible way in which the current food system — which essentially sticks up the middle finger at Mother Nature — can continue as is for another decade without serious consequences.

    Unlike the Wall Street scenario, there are no bailouts for the environment.  You can’t simply bring life back to a poisoned river or lake overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars you throw at it.

    This is not a doomsday prophecy.  I believe, more than ever, that we are at the early beginnings of what could be a powerful collective shift in how we view food.

    These issues can be often be daunting — at least they are for me — because it can be difficult to pinpoint what the best starting point is.  For now, I believe that informing others of how our current food system works is crucial.  There is no need for self-created pedestals, or belittling.  After all, each and every one of us, at some point, had absolutely no awareness about any of this.

    Similarly, “the sky is falling!” scare tactics often paralyze, rather than stir people into action.

    While activism and advocacy are great services to society, not everybody has the time, personality, or unbridled energy for headline-making moves.  You don’t have to be a policy maker to take action, though.  If you are part of a book club, suggest that one of your upcoming tomes be “Food Politics” by Marion Nestle, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, or “Appetite for Profit” by Michele Simon.

    Are you a school teacher?  See if you can fit “Supersize Me”, “King Corn”, or “Food, Inc.” into your curriculum.

    Discuss.  Analyze.  Engage in conversation.  And, always, continue learning.

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