SHOPPING THOUGHTFULLY: THE STORY OF OUR FOOD AND SOIL

The food industry of 2019 is bridging the curious interface of demand for ethical food; confusion over what exactly is ethical, healthy, and sustainable; and the birth of large consumer populations who are willing to pay for it.

As consumers grow more discerning in their desires for certain types of food and particular styles of food sourcing, it places pressure on manufacturers and producers to adjust accordingly. Since the organic food boom resurfaced in the 1990s, the organic market has grown by almost 20% annually. This creates potent opportunities for companies who are interested in capitalizing on consumer demands. Not only did this phenomena give rise to new types of farming, food labels, and brands; it birthed massive supermarkets and corporations dedicated to the pursuit of these labels. Yet, the information regarding what is organic, how it’s organic, where it’s coming from, and whether or not this is actually a good thing remains ambiguous to the average shopper.

There are government agencies designed to regulate our food, and they do indeed regulate several labels with meaning, such as the term “USDA Organic.” This label is regulated strictly by the USDA and only the companies that completely meet these standards are allowed to use it. However, as science emerges must faster than the government can make decisions, there is evidence showing that “organic” doesn’t always amount to the bucolic red barns and rolling hills that marketing initiatives try to promote. Oftentimes, organic corporations look a lot more like a standard production–with alternative pesticides, massive outputs, and equally concerning soil practices.

So what exactly do we want to see from food production?

With meat consumption and veganism the current trend of debate, it’s clear that people are continuing to fight about what type of food to eat. While these debates are often lacking all of the nuance, evidence, and scientific knowledge they deserve, their bigger failing is that they’re the wrong conversation to have entirely. There’s actually a bigger problem at hand–and it’s affecting all eaters. Whether someone is a vegan, omnivore, pescatarian, or carnivore, the sources of all food groups in our modern production are suffering from quality issues and contributing to climate destruction.

Industrial meat production is confining animals to cages or feedlots of grain and soy (which ruminants are unable to digest), and is committing over-grazing of pastures to the point of grass being unable to grow. Plant production on large industrial farms is relying on genetically modified species, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. The science regarding the consumption of these products, such as glyphosate, is still hotly debated and conclusive evidence that they are safe is lacking. But that discussion can be saved for another day.

The production issue to consider here for both meat and plants is that these modern practices are destroying soil.

Soil Health is the Health of the Planet

The health of the soil around the world is a fantastic measuring stick for determining how that area has been stewarded. Topsoil, the uppermost layer of the soil, is one of the key players in climate change. When an area loses its topsoil, carbon can escape from below, microorganisms in the ground die, and the dirt is devoid of key nutrients and minerals. Then, nothing can grow there. The loss of topsoil prevents the earth from being able to trap and house everything that it needs to be healthy. When it rains, healthy topsoil will soak-up and hold the water in the dirt below it. The minerals in the dirt can nourish the plants growing within it, making them stronger and more nutrient-dense. The ecosystem of microorganisms, like bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and mycorrhiza can fix the earth’s periodic elements, create antioxidants, and help sequester carbon dioxide. And when topsoil is rich, the earth is teeming with nourishing life, and more plants–which can sequester atmospheric CO2–can grow. This is the natural carbon cycle of the earth.

When an area is over-farmed, the topsoil dries and deteriorates. It runs off in rainwater and wind, cannot protect any ground below it, and is devoid of life. This is one of the reasons the Mississippi river is so brown–the farms of all the states bordering the water are losing pounds and pounds of topsoil every year as run-off. In fact, researchers have determined that $8 billion is lost annually from global GDP in topsoil losses. This is also why our produce is less nutritious than it was several decades ago, with statistically significant declines in amounts of key nutrients present in our fruits and vegetables.

The key to restoring the health of the soil is to farm the way people once farmed and to mimic the natural movement of life across terrain. This means that a farm must have a diverse ecosystem of both plants and animals, a farm must use cover crops to deposit nitrogen back into the soil after a growing season, and a farm must move ruminants across pastures to restore the outermost layer of topsoil, feed microorganisms, and house moisture. This is where the term “pasture management” or “regenerative farming” is stemming from. Some amazing farmers and researchers are using grazing-intensive management to completely restore barren land to lush ecosystems. One of the researchers who has pioneered this priceless science is Allan Savory. See one of his Ted Talks here.

Exciting new research has shown that grazing-intensive management can turn farms into net-carbon sinks, wherein the use of their cattle to move through pastures in a manner that promotes plant growth and restores topsoil transforms the farm into an area of land that can collar and store CO2. This is one of the key mechanisms in saving the planet from further climate change, and healing damage that has already occurred.

This same principle applies to plant growth. Massive wheat, corn, soy, and vegetable farms also contribute to total habitat destruction. Thousands of square acres are cleaned of trees, animals, and diverse plant life. The soil is so over-framed that stalks will only grow if supplemented with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This fertilizer and the pesticides sprayed by airplanes from overhead contribute to the death of microorganisms in the soil. In these ecosystems, topsoil is lost as dust and life below is gone. Thus, organic farms are a step in the right direction, but the big organic farms also use fertilizers and actually commit far more tilling of the soil (since they can’t kill their weeds with glyphosate), which is a major contributor of topsoil loss, too. So while this trend is mostly well-intentioned and is at least limiting potentially dangerous chemical use, we still have factors to improve upon given new research.

Natural, Organic, and Free-Range?

So, when you’re standing in the middle of Whole Foods looking at 17 different egg carton labels, how do you decide which brand to pick? Let’s first consider several important labels. Currently, only some labels on food are regulated by the USDA and FDA. This means that some of the text on food packages doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all, and often is only designed to make the food appear healthier.

USDA Organic:

  • Food can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
  • None of this food can be grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibit.
  • For organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
  • Note that this is different from “made with organic ingredients,” which means that some of the ingredients are organic but not all are organic.

Natural:

  • The FDA regulates the use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs. A “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”
  • This label is not officially regulated in regard to other products but is present on countless packages as a marketing gimmick.

Animal Welfare Approved:

  • Animal Welfare Approved has some of the highest standards of any third-party auditing program.
  • For poultry, the Animal Welfare Institute prohibits forced molting through starvation, beak cutting, and feed containing meat or animal byproducts. And flocks must contain fewer than 500 birds.
  • Each hen must have 1.8 square feet of indoor floor space and must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe.
  • Birds must have continuous access to an outdoor area for ranging and foraging.
  • The outdoor space must be covered by growing vegetation and must provide at least 4 square feet (576 square inches) of space per bird.

Cage-Free:

  • This only means that the hen doesn’t live in a cage at all times, and has a door somewhere in the vicinity where she could get outside. It does not mean that she ever was outside.

Free-Range:

  • In regard to poultry, this term is regulated by the USDA, and it means hens were given continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. This does not guarantee that a hen ever actually stepped foot outside, it just means there was a way for them to do so.

Antibiotic-free:

  • All meat has to have passed antibiotics through their system before they can be consumed, so this label has loopholes and does not mean anything significant.
  • Pasture-raised meat does not require antibiotics by virtue of their healthy lifestyles, and thus the animal’s system would never have been exposed to the antibiotic int he first place

Grass-Fed vs Pasture-Raised:

  • The USDA defines grass-fed as a diet of 100% grass, but there are loopholes to this regulation. Some farms will allow cattle to graze during the growing season but then feed them hay all winter. Which isn’t necessarily a significant issue, especially in cold-weather areas.
  •  The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has stricter standards, including details about animal confinement and the use of hormones. But there are only 300 farms certified with the AGA in the United States. With the term pasture-raised, no organization is verifying standards, which means the label is often used loosely.
Strategies for Thoughtful Food Consumption

Now that we know that we want to support farms that utilize cover crops, use pasture management grazing, and do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, how do we find these good actors?

There are two major interventions that are the most obvious and the most effective that must first be stated. The first initiative to consider is to grow a garden in your backyard. The interaction with the soil is incredibly important for your health and also is a cost-effective and health-promoting strategy for getting the best produce you can. At one point, most American families had a garden on their property. This has fallen out of trend as we separate ourselves further from the natural world, but when we acknowledge that this practice gives us organic, free produce, and that we can have an area of our own to sequester carbon and steward life, it’s easy to see that this endeavor is valuable.

Second, shop locally at sustainable farms. There are farms all around the country working to do the right thing. More and more farmers are continuing to transition to regenerative practices, and they need our support. Visit wonderful sites like Eat Wild to find farms to visit.

After considering those two key strategies, we can then turn to shopping thoughtfully. More labels will continue to emerge to market practices that consumers are looking for. Already, labels are touting things such as “forage-raised,” or “regenerative.” These are not yet regulated, but if you see a brand featuring this logo it’s worth investigating their background. That company might have a wonderful website where they demonstrate their practices. For example, Nellie’s Free Range eggs have 24-hour webcams on their site where visitors can see live views of their chickens out in the pasture! So keep a lookout for brands that are trying to do the right thing. For produce, buy the best fruits and vegetables you can afford. A fruit and vegetable of some sort is better than no fruit and vegetable, but if you can manage organic produce or sustainable produce from a local farmer’s market, even better.

Lastly, there thankfully are some great emerging companies for ethical meat production. Namely, Walden Local Meat, Butcher Box, Belcampo Meat, and EPIC brand. And if you investigate your local area, you can find wonderful sources for meat shares, CSA’s, and smaller producers. Here in Massachusetts, we have great farms like Clark Farm Carlisle, Stillman Meats, and local meat shares.

While navigating this landscape is no small feat, a consumer, scientist, and farmer all have the responsibility to try to do the right thing. This is an overwhelming topic because it’s interdisciplinary; it requires knowledge of nutrition science, agricultural science, public policy, and even American history. That’s a big undertaking! But the wonderful thing about nutrition science and land management is that in time, the truth continues to surface. We keep researching, we keep trying to do the right thing, and we keep supporting those who are making a difference, and eventually, we make progress. The story continues to point us towards the most genuine source of information itself: the farmer.  We have to cut-out Hollywood, celebrities, and our crazy aunt on social media, and instead, focus on the story of the soil. The stewards of our land can tell us the most accurate story of the land. And when we support them, we are making a difference.

Grow the garden. Visit the farm. Cook the food at home. Your food story matters, and it will make a difference.

Learning Resources:

The Savory Institute

Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm

White Oak Pastures

Farmer’s Footprint

Kiss The Ground

Climate, A New Story by Charles Eisenstein

SHOPPING THOUGHTFULLY: THE STORY OF OUR FOOD AND SOIL

The food industry of 2019 is bridging the curious interface of demand for ethical food; confusion over what exactly is ethical, healthy, and sustainable; and the birth of large consumer populations who are willing to pay for it.

As consumers grow more discerning in their desires for certain types of food and particular styles of food sourcing, it places pressure on manufacturers and producers to adjust accordingly. Since the organic food boom resurfaced in the 1990s, the organic market has grown by almost 20% annually. This creates potent opportunities for companies who are interested in capitalizing on consumer demands. Not only did this phenomena give rise to new types of farming, food labels, and brands; it birthed massive supermarkets and corporations dedicated to the pursuit of these labels. Yet, the information regarding what is organic, how it’s organic, where it’s coming from, and whether or not this is actually a good thing remains ambiguous to the average shopper.

There are government agencies designed to regulate our food, and they do indeed regulate several labels with meaning, such as the term “USDA Organic.” This label is regulated strictly by the USDA and only the companies that completely meet these standards are allowed to use it. However, as science emerges must faster than the government can make decisions, there is evidence showing that “organic” doesn’t always amount to the bucolic red barns and rolling hills that marketing initiatives try to promote. Oftentimes, organic corporations look a lot more like a standard production–with alternative pesticides, massive outputs, and equally concerning soil practices.

So what exactly do we want to see from food production?

With meat consumption and veganism the current trend of debate, it’s clear that people are continuing to fight about what type of food to eat. While these debates are often lacking all of the nuance, evidence, and scientific knowledge they deserve, their bigger failing is that they’re the wrong conversation to have entirely. There’s actually a bigger problem at hand–and it’s affecting all eaters. Whether someone is a vegan, omnivore, pescatarian, or carnivore, the sources of all food groups in our modern production are suffering from quality issues and contributing to climate destruction.

Industrial meat production is confining animals to cages or feedlots of grain and soy (which ruminants are unable to digest), and is committing over-grazing of pastures to the point of grass being unable to grow. Plant production on large industrial farms is relying on genetically modified species, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. The science regarding the consumption of these products, such as glyphosate, is still hotly debated and conclusive evidence that they are safe is lacking. But that discussion can be saved for another day.

The production issue to consider here for both meat and plants is that these modern practices are destroying soil.

Soil Health is the Health of the Planet

The health of the soil around the world is a fantastic measuring stick for determining how that area has been stewarded. Topsoil, the uppermost layer of the soil, is one of the key players in climate change. When an area loses its topsoil, carbon can escape from below, microorganisms in the ground die, and the dirt is devoid of key nutrients and minerals. Then, nothing can grow there. The loss of topsoil prevents the earth from being able to trap and house everything that it needs to be healthy. When it rains, healthy topsoil will soak-up and hold the water in the dirt below it. The minerals in the dirt can nourish the plants growing within it, making them stronger and more nutrient-dense. The ecosystem of microorganisms, like bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and mycorrhiza can fix the earth’s periodic elements, create antioxidants, and help sequester carbon dioxide. And when topsoil is rich, the earth is teeming with nourishing life, and more plants–which can sequester atmospheric CO2–can grow. This is the natural carbon cycle of the earth.

When an area is over-farmed, the topsoil dries and deteriorates. It runs off in rainwater and wind, cannot protect any ground below it, and is devoid of life. This is one of the reasons the Mississippi river is so brown–the farms of all the states bordering the water are losing pounds and pounds of topsoil every year as run-off. In fact, researchers have determined that $8 billion is lost annually from global GDP in topsoil losses. This is also why our produce is less nutritious than it was several decades ago, with statistically significant declines in amounts of key nutrients present in our fruits and vegetables.

The key to restoring the health of the soil is to farm the way people once farmed and to mimic the natural movement of life across terrain. This means that a farm must have a diverse ecosystem of both plants and animals, a farm must use cover crops to deposit nitrogen back into the soil after a growing season, and a farm must move ruminants across pastures to restore the outermost layer of topsoil, feed microorganisms, and house moisture. This is where the term “pasture management” or “regenerative farming” is stemming from. Some amazing farmers and researchers are using grazing-intensive management to completely restore barren land to lush ecosystems. One of the researchers who has pioneered this priceless science is Allan Savory. See one of his Ted Talks here.

Exciting new research has shown that grazing-intensive management can turn farms into net-carbon sinks, wherein the use of their cattle to move through pastures in a manner that promotes plant growth and restores topsoil transforms the farm into an area of land that can collar and store CO2. This is one of the key mechanisms in saving the planet from further climate change, and healing damage that has already occurred.

This same principle applies to plant growth. Massive wheat, corn, soy, and vegetable farms also contribute to total habitat destruction. Thousands of square acres are cleaned of trees, animals, and diverse plant life. The soil is so over-framed that stalks will only grow if supplemented with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This fertilizer and the pesticides sprayed by airplanes from overhead contribute to the death of microorganisms in the soil. In these ecosystems, topsoil is lost as dust and life below is gone. Thus, organic farms are a step in the right direction, but the big organic farms also use fertilizers and actually commit far more tilling of the soil (since they can’t kill their weeds with glyphosate), which is a major contributor of topsoil loss, too. So while this trend is mostly well-intentioned and is at least limiting potentially dangerous chemical use, we still have factors to improve upon given new research.

Natural, Organic, and Free-Range?

So, when you’re standing in the middle of Whole Foods looking at 17 different egg carton labels, how do you decide which brand to pick? Let’s first consider several important labels. Currently, only some labels on food are regulated by the USDA and FDA. This means that some of the text on food packages doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all, and often is only designed to make the food appear healthier.

USDA Organic:

  • Food can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
  • None of this food can be grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibit.
  • For organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
  • Note that this is different from “made with organic ingredients,” which means that some of the ingredients are organic but not all are organic.

Natural:

  • The FDA regulates the use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs. A “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”
  • This label is not officially regulated in regard to other products but is present on countless packages as a marketing gimmick.

Animal Welfare Approved:

  • Animal Welfare Approved has some of the highest standards of any third-party auditing program.
  • For poultry, the Animal Welfare Institute prohibits forced molting through starvation, beak cutting, and feed containing meat or animal byproducts. And flocks must contain fewer than 500 birds.
  • Each hen must have 1.8 square feet of indoor floor space and must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe.
  • Birds must have continuous access to an outdoor area for ranging and foraging.
  • The outdoor space must be covered by growing vegetation and must provide at least 4 square feet (576 square inches) of space per bird.

Cage-Free:

  • This only means that the hen doesn’t live in a cage at all times, and has a door somewhere in the vicinity where she could get outside. It does not mean that she ever was outside.

Free-Range:

  • In regard to poultry, this term is regulated by the USDA, and it means hens were given continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. This does not guarantee that a hen ever actually stepped foot outside, it just means there was a way for them to do so.

Antibiotic-free:

  • All meat has to have passed antibiotics through their system before they can be consumed, so this label has loopholes and does not mean anything significant.
  • Pasture-raised meat does not require antibiotics by virtue of their healthy lifestyles, and thus the animal’s system would never have been exposed to the antibiotic int he first place

Grass-Fed vs Pasture-Raised:

  • The USDA defines grass-fed as a diet of 100% grass, but there are loopholes to this regulation. Some farms will allow cattle to graze during the growing season but then feed them hay all winter. Which isn’t necessarily a significant issue, especially in cold-weather areas.
  •  The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has stricter standards, including details about animal confinement and the use of hormones. But there are only 300 farms certified with the AGA in the United States. With the term pasture-raised, no organization is verifying standards, which means the label is often used loosely.
Strategies for Thoughtful Food Consumption

Now that we know that we want to support farms that utilize cover crops, use pasture management grazing, and do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, how do we find these good actors?

There are two major interventions that are the most obvious and the most effective that must first be stated. The first initiative to consider is to grow a garden in your backyard. The interaction with the soil is incredibly important for your health and also is a cost-effective and health-promoting strategy for getting the best produce you can. At one point, most American families had a garden on their property. This has fallen out of trend as we separate ourselves further from the natural world, but when we acknowledge that this practice gives us organic, free produce, and that we can have an area of our own to sequester carbon and steward life, it’s easy to see that this endeavor is valuable.

Second, shop locally at sustainable farms. There are farms all around the country working to do the right thing. More and more farmers are continuing to transition to regenerative practices, and they need our support. Visit wonderful sites like Eat Wild to find farms to visit.

After considering those two key strategies, we can then turn to shopping thoughtfully. More labels will continue to emerge to market practices that consumers are looking for. Already, labels are touting things such as “forage-raised,” or “regenerative.” These are not yet regulated, but if you see a brand featuring this logo it’s worth investigating their background. That company might have a wonderful website where they demonstrate their practices. For example, Nellie’s Free Range eggs have 24-hour webcams on their site where visitors can see live views of their chickens out in the pasture! So keep a lookout for brands that are trying to do the right thing. For produce, buy the best fruits and vegetables you can afford. A fruit and vegetable of some sort is better than no fruit and vegetable, but if you can manage organic produce or sustainable produce from a local farmer’s market, even better.

Lastly, there thankfully are some great emerging companies for ethical meat production. Namely, Walden Local Meat, Butcher Box, Belcampo Meat, and EPIC brand. And if you investigate your local area, you can find wonderful sources for meat shares, CSA’s, and smaller producers. Here in Massachusetts, we have great farms like Clark Farm Carlisle, Stillman Meats, and local meat shares.

While navigating this landscape is no small feat, a consumer, scientist, and farmer all have the responsibility to try to do the right thing. This is an overwhelming topic because it’s interdisciplinary; it requires knowledge of nutrition science, agricultural science, public policy, and even American history. That’s a big undertaking! But the wonderful thing about nutrition science and land management is that in time, the truth continues to surface. We keep researching, we keep trying to do the right thing, and we keep supporting those who are making a difference, and eventually, we make progress. The story continues to point us towards the most genuine source of information itself: the farmer.  We have to cut-out Hollywood, celebrities, and our crazy aunt on social media, and instead, focus on the story of the soil. The stewards of our land can tell us the most accurate story of the land. And when we support them, we are making a difference.

Grow the garden. Visit the farm. Cook the food at home. Your food story matters, and it will make a difference.

Learning Resources:

The Savory Institute

Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm

White Oak Pastures

Farmer’s Footprint

Kiss The Ground

Climate, A New Story by Charles Eisenstein