Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Livestock and Deserts

Questions of whether or not we should all become vegetarian because the conversion rate of grain to meat is 10:1 ignore a lot in order to come to that conclusion. Sure cattle are terrible at converting grain to meat--but they're not really supposed to be converting grain to meat.
Any animal converting grain to meat is a worst-case scenario. And cattle are the worst of all. Pigs do much better at 5:1, and chickens are just over 2:1. But one role of animals--particularly ruminants, is to bring otherwise un-farmable land into the food chain. Pigs excel at bringing food waste back into the food chain, and have long been raised on slops--otherwise unusable food. Pigs have even been used to manage human sewage and bring it back into the food chain--although that's not something I would recommend. And chickens are champion foragers. Given a bit of woodland and some pasture, and they do quite nicely at feeding themselves most of the year.
But most important is the role of animals, primarily ruminants, in building soil. People like Joel Salutin at Polyface Farm have found how to maximize this aspect of animal husbandry. Intensive rotational grazing by cattle followed some days later by rotationally-grazed chickens increase the speed of soil production, add nitrogen to the soil, and provides insect control.
Sustainable farming pretty much requires animals as part of a land management plan. They are just too darned efficient, and offer compact calories, access to nutrients that are difficult to acquire any other way, and the opportunity for increased income. Sustainability, after all, includes economic sustainability.
Alan Savory did this TED talk about the role of ruminants in wild systems. It's worth a watch.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Salmon Confidential

Healthy salmon heart on left. One infected with piscine reovirus on right.
Frame-grab from Salmon Confidential
I've just finished watching the excellent new documentary Salmon Confidential (watch for free at the link) and I have to say, while enraging, I'm not surprised. This is the story of our federal government refusing to hear that there might be a problem with fish farms. It's a story of political gagging, attacks on whistle-blowers, and, ultimately, a complete failure to safeguard our food system. And what the hell else is new.
I cannot write a precis that would do the film justice, so I'm only going to encourage you to spend an hour watching the story unfold. And, if you are a BC resident as I am, make sure to raise the issue now, during the run-up to the election, and then vote for whatever candidate acknowledges that something has to be done about this.
At it's core, this film is about more than salmon; it's about enclosing the commons on the ocean, and, where it cannot be enclosed, destroying the resource and replacing it with one that can be enclosed. It is, in part, the culmination of a 250 year old war on the First Nations: destroy the food source and you destroy those dependent on it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Horesemeat Scandal Opportunity

This Al Jazeera report on the horsemeat scandal takes a different tack, suggesting that class had something to do with the scandal--and that it may also provide an opportunity.

"The food industry across Europe displayed a contempt for consumers. Because the food that ended up containing horse meat was consumed primarily by the poor."
And that's kind of it in a nutshell, isn't it? Not just horse meat, but food deserts, food swamps, famine, food banks, all these are issues experienced by "poor people." Not "us". Not the mythical "middle class". We don't have this problem, they do. But food insecurity is a global issue, and it's getting to the point that in order for you and I to eat, someone else is going to have to starve. And it's getting closer and closer to the point where that's not going to be someone way over there, but someone here in Canada, here in the US or the EU. Because food security is an issue best treated with democracy--real democracy, not this faked up version we've got now. When people make their own decisions and can drive public policy to support those decisions, rather than having on policy be made for reasons often antithetical to our interests, or the greater interests of society, that's when things can change.
Because, when if comes to food security issues, "the poor" are really just those of us out at the leading edge of the wave. As the edge breaks, more and more of us are going to start crashing down, suddenly finding ourselves food-poor.

Friday, April 12, 2013

From the Archives

CBC radio used to carry a programme called The National Farm Radio Forum that encouraged rural folk to form local forums and discuss various topics, conclusions from which were then broadcast across the country. Starting back in the 30s, topics included discussion about fascism, rationing, and what should be grown to support the war effort. Later, discussion would revolve around the role of women on the farm or whether they should be allowed to take off-farm jobs, and whether or not a national health plan was a good thing for farmers.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

More on Pink Slime

Food Safety News has a terrific article on the debates which were going on at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service during the explosion over the inclusion of "lean finely textured beef," or "pink slime" as it was more commonly known, in ground beef. From the article:
When consumer outrage over LFTB went viral last spring many federal food safety officials had never heard of the product.
“Do you know anything about this?” wrote one FSIS meat inspector to a colleague March 3, in response to a consumer inquiry. “I checked USDA’s homepage and there is nothing about it there.”
On March 6, after reading The Daily’s story on USDA’s use of LFTB in the national school lunch program, Bettina Siegel, a mother of two who writes a blog about school food, launched a petition on to ban the product from the program. The next day, ABC World News was on the story, reporting that 70 percent of U.S. ground beef contained LFTB. Within a matter of days, Siegel’s petition had over 250,000 signatures, and had garnered national attention.
Some FSIS officials were frustrated that they didn’t find out about the widely used product from the agency.
“The thing that gets me is why do we learn about products like this through the news media and not from the agency?” wrote another meat inspector March 12.
An agency veterinarian in New York said, “I was totally unaware of the process, but I am glad that I have access to the resources to learn about it and then pass along my knowledge to family and friends.”
School administrators also seemed to be unaware that LFTB was in products being served to students, according to the emails.
“This is disgusting,” wrote John Overcash, the Food Service Director for Littleton Public Schools in Massachusetts, referring to Siegel’s petition. “The article did mention that McDonalds has stopped using ground beef that contains pink slime. Be interested to know if the ground beef produced at a grocery store could or does contain this pink slime. I don’t buy commercially premade burgers or the tubes of ground beef often sold in grocery stores any way.”
Sarah Klein, a food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest told Food Safety News she believes the LFTB fiasco raised transparency concerns.
“The troubling part of the entire pink slime fiasco– which we believe is unsavory, but generally not unsafe– is that no one outside the industry seemed to know what was going into burgers; not the consumers who were buying them or the agency that regulates them,” said Klein in an email. “That’s the truly unsavory part of this, and the part that is worrisome for public health. If the agency who is tasked with overseeing the safety of beef products doesn’t know what’s going in to those products, how can consumers have confidence in their food?”
" If the agency who is tasked with overseeing the safety of beef products doesn't know what's going  in to those products, how can consumers have confidence in their food?" Doesn't that just sum up the industrial food system?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Broken, Corrupt, or Just Useless: Canada's Food Inspection

This weekend the Toronto Star ran an article on the life and death of a thoroughbred horse once owned and raced by Frank Stronach. The horse ended its days as meat, destined for Europe. the problem is, it wasn’t supposed to:
According to Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, horses should not be sold for food if they have been given nitrofurazone at any point in their lives. Backstreet Bully had been given many other drugs that could also pose a serious risk to humans.
“Racehorses are walking pharmacies,” said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian at Tufts University in Massachusetts who has studied the issue extensively. “Do you really want to be eating a piece of meat that has the rabies vaccine in it?”
The Star found a host of problems in Canada’s food protection system related to horses. From one document to the next, the Star discovered confusion over which drugs are considered safe, how quickly a toxic drug leaves a horse’s body, and whether any trust can be placed in the system that regulates horses sold for meat.
The problem is that the horse, Backstreet Bully, had had its "passport" falsified, stating that the owner had owned the horse for at least the last six months, and swore that it had not been treated with any banned substances (substances banned from horses destined for the human food chain, not for veterinary purposes). When in actual fact, the horse had been owned for less than 24 hours, had been treated with banned drugs, and was not intended for the food chain.
“You can’t kill that horse,” Stacie Clark, who works for the Stronach farm, recalled pleading with an abattoir official. It wasn’t just small amounts of these drugs that had once been given to the horse: 21 doses of nitrofurazone, which has been linked to cancer in humans, and at least 23 doses of bute, a drug linked to bone marrow disease [in humans].
When Clark, from Stronach’s Adena Springs farm in Aurora, made her rescue attempt, she was already too late. Backstreet Bully was dead, shot in the head while imprisoned in a cramped abattoir stall. Canadian officials have refused to tell the Star if the horse’s meat entered the food chain.
The officials from CFIA have probably refused to say whether  the horse-meat entered the food chain because they likely have no idea. This horse was tracked because it had a halter with it that had its name stamped on it. "“The only mistake I made was the halter shouldn’t have went with that horse. That’s where it all leaked out,” Priest told the Star."

The problem lies in the relationship between the EU and Canada;  The EU accepts Canadian horse-meat because the documentation says that it has been drug-free. Canada has no real idea if the meat is drug-free, because they rely on the seller's attestation. To quote the article:
Dr. Martin Appelt, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s national veterinary program manager, acknowledged the government relies on an honour system and hopes that the documents are “a reflection of the truth.”
But it’s far from a foolproof system: last year, tainted horse meat from Canada, bound for Belgium, was found to contain traces of two controversial drugs, bute and clenbuterol, the latter on the list of drugs in Canada that are never to be given to animals sold for human food.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency began testing horse meat for bute in 2002. In detecting prohibited veterinary drug residues in meat, there is an overall compliance rate of 96 to 98 per cent, according to an agency spokesperson. Testing is random though a horse or its carcass will be tested if there are red flags or concerns.
The European Union takes a tough stance on many veterinary drugs in human food, including bute and nitrofurazone, for its homegrown horses. Yet the EU will accept Canadian-processed horse meat if the animals’ documents say they were drug free for six months at the time of slaughter.
 This is what relying on business to do the right thing leads to. It is the reason we need strong, enforced, regulations. Particularly around food--the one place we really don't have appropriate regulation. We have regulation to protect corporate profits (the latest outrage comes from the US and involves Monsanto (thanks to BCFSG) but the same thinking is part of the Harper government), we have regulation to destroy small and mid-size farmers (or lack of regulation, like the dismantling of the Wheat Board), we have the Alberta provincial government refusing to licence an abattoir that promised to inspect every animal that came through for BSE (because it would throw doubt on just how well the big processors were doing the same thing--very poorly, which is why I generally refuse to eat beef). But we don't have a comprehensive food inspection system that promotes and displays transparency and honesty. At least that's how it looks from where I'm sitting.