28. “Wasted Food”

(I’m finally back in harness, in case anyone was wondering.  First there were the Passover/ Spring Break holidays which included both our own travel and then hosting the welcome invasion of out-of-town family;  and since then I’ve been Getting My Garden In.  That’s almost done, so now I can resume blogging.)

Actually, there are some bits of good news to report on the topic of not wasting food.  Jordan Figueiredo, an activist on this issue, reports progress on the salvaging of cosmetically imperfect/ “ugly” produce.  One brand called Misfits is now marketing ugly produce in 300 US stores involving three supermarket chains.  Also, Walmart and Whole foods have both begun pilot programs to sell odd-looking fruits and vegetables at certain of their stores.  And chefs are becoming aware that they can use “ugly” items too.

This is all still very small-scale and tentative — but any journey starts with the first step.  It is very welcome to see these first steps taken;  scaling them up is the next thing that needs to happen.

On the other hand, Kate Cox and H. Claire Brown of the New Food Economy wrote a review (on May 15) of a new study on the content of food that Americans throw away.  The study was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and is available online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  It aimed to investigate not the amount of food that US citizens collectively waste but the nutritional content of that wasted food.  What they found was sobering.

It turns out that it is not just the 1,217 calories per US person per day that gets tossed, but that these are not comprised primarily of junk food calories but of valuable nutrients.  Each 1,217 calorie unit of loss includes:  33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber (19%) of daily needs), 1.7 micrograms of Vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium (29% of daily needs), 880 milligrams of potassium, 48% of iron RDA, 43% of vitamin C RDA… and so on.  In other words, the researchers discovered that what’s thrown away is indeed nutritious stuff, which could, if salvaged and eaten, contribute to greatly improved nutrition for the US population.  And we could use it, both because too many millions of us are food insecure and also because even the food-secure among us chronically fall short in our intake of many vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The study’s authors point out that preventing even a portion of this food from being wasted could boost the nutrition of all Americans from where we are to completely adequate.  They point to several tactics — revised and standardized sell-by dates, educating consumers, and giving tax breaks to grocery stores that donate leftovers to food banks instead of landfills — as low-cost ways of significantly decreasing the loss of good food that we actually need.  And the researchers also suggest that part of the education we need might be started by shifting away from talking about “food waste” (which we unconsciously take to mean talk about “waste”) and beginning instead to talk about “wasted food” — which would emphasize in our minds that this is food we’re discussing.

I think they have a point.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

26. What About Wild Game?

I have explained in previous posts why factory farming of livestock to provide copious “cheap” meat is both unsustainable and incompatible with feeding the world.  But the question might be asked whether hunting wild game could fill the gap.

I believe the answer is both No and Partly Yes.

No:  when people think of hunting they think of going out into the woods with a gun or bow and hunting traditional prey animals like deer and ducks, or taking rod and reel to go fishing.  But between habitat loss and overhunting, many once-plentiful game species are no longer plentiful, while the human population is vastly larger now than in the Stone Age when hunting really could supply much of some clans’ food needs.  Even deer, which due to suppression of wolves and coyotes are actually overpopulated in some places, could not begin to supply the shortfall of meat that will result from ending the factory farming of livestock.

On the other hand, there are some highly edible animal species that are actually becoming pests, and whose numbers really need to be reduced solely from the ecological perspective.  Besides deer in certain situations, there are feral swine all over the US southwest that are doing serious ecological and agricultural damage;  invasive Asian carp swarm throughout the Mississippi basin and threaten the Great Lakes;  Canada geese infest (and grossly defecate in) urban parks all over the US;  rabbits in Australia come to mind.  Each of these species is particularly noted for being good eating (if you eat animals at all).  So one modest suggestion would be that public policy should encourage those folks who want to hunt and fish anyway to go after these invasive overpopulated species.  In some cases, such as Asian carp and wild swine, such hunting/ fishing might even be commercially viable.

There are certainly concerns that must be addressed.  Deer and Canada geese are a problem when found near human habitation, so there are considerations of how to humanely hunt these creatures without endangering either people or non-target animals (including but not limited to pets);  hunting might have to be limited to certain well-publicized places and times when non-hunters would be warned to stay away from an area.  Some of these creatures, like swine and carp, can be quite dangerous, though this would probably be an attraction rather than a deterrent for some people;  the public policy concern in this case would be to prevent hunters/ fishers or their heirs from suing any government entity if they got hurt doing a government-sponsored activity.  Neither poison nor traps could be used to control edible pest animals, since both these methods might kill non-targeted creatures, both can be extremely cruel, and poison would render the meat of targeted animals inedible.  So orchestrated hunting of pest species for food would require considerable public discussion before it could be implemented.

Inevitably, part of that discussion would include the opinions of a significant fraction of the population who feel passionately that no hunting or fishing can ever be humane, that killing fellow-creatures for food is wrong, and that everyone should just go vegetarian or vegan.  Since I myself have not eaten any meat in the past 16 years at this writing, I would be the last person to suggest that eating meat is something people ought to do.  But I do recognize that there are still many people who want to hunt and eat meat by preference, and people for whom hunting and fishing are recreations they would not willingly give up. As long as this remains the case, why not put the people who want to hunt and eat meat together with the need to decrease the populations of certain tasty and nutritious animals?  I’m not a fan of Wild Boar Barbecue myself, but some folks would be, and something really needs to be done about those feral swine.

I do not believe that even the prolific Asian carp, rabbits in Australia, and so on would provide the volume of meat currently available in American supermarkets. But they could provide some significant amounts.  And this might as well be added in to the strategies for feeding the world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


25.What About Cows on Grass?

I hope my previous posts have explained in adequate detail why factory-farming of livestock is a disaster for the environment, for the animals, for human health in regard to both healthy eating and preserving the usefulness of antibiotics, and last but not least for the prospects of ending hunger (since it takes many pounds of human-edible crops to produce just a few pounds of animal food).  But what about raising animals on pasture?

Many arguments have been made in favor of pasturing livestock.  It is much more humane, because it enables the animals to live comfortably and behave naturally (until they’re slaughtered).  Where row-cropping is not possible due to inadequate rainfall/ irrigation or steep slopes, pasturing is a way of turning grass that people cannot eat into meat, dairy, and eggs that we can.  Arguments have been made, and in some cases apparently borne out, that grazing animals on pasture can sequester carbon and restore degraded land.

On the other hand, when animals trample stream beds it causes serious ecological damage and water pollution.  In many parts of the world, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland and scrubland into desert — or has already done so.  And in a world in which water scarcity is growing, livestock need to drink a lot more water than is needed to grow plant crops.

I recently read a couple of contributions to the controversy.  The March/April 2017 Sierra magazine (a Sierra Club publication) examined the claims of Allan Savory, whose observations of African conditions led him to believe that cattle improve soil by stirring it up, and that carbon-sequestering bacteria thrive in their hoof prints, so that the more cattle are on the land the better the land becomes — whether in well-watered regions, or in arid and semi-arid ones.  The writer’s report of his interview with Savory makes clear that the man believes in his thesis passionately and sincerely.  Yet the article also shows that scientific examination of the facts do not quite support Savory’s beliefs.  For Savory insists that any number of cattle can be grazed on land as long as they’re moved about enough to avoid degrading it — but he ignores the facts that a great deal of just such degradation has been well documented, and that at least in arid and semi-arid areas, where ruminant herds were not present until people introduced them, it’s not really possible to move them far enough and fast enough to avoid very serious degradation and desertification.  Bison only worked well as part of the prairie ecosystem because grass grows well there and they had the whole one million square miles of the Great Plains to move about on.

I have read of The Nature Conservancy working with ranchers to use controlled grazing as part of the ecological restoration of their spread.  I’ve read of people like eccentric farmer Joel Salatin (especially as reported by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) who have successfully used pasturing of livestock to restore degraded land.  And I read this week (March 5) in the New York Times Sunday Review section (p.4) an essay by Englishman James Rebanks who herds sheep in England’s Lake District in accordance with traditions that date back over 4000 years.  He works within a local and ancient communal grazing system in that very hilly region which must, in order to have lasted this long, have worked out a set of practices that match flock size to the land’s long-term carrying capacity.

It would therefore seem that raising livestock on pasture can in certain circumstances be sustainable and appropriate.  But it must be made very clear that it only works when animals are kept away from stream banks, and moved about very frequently, and maintained in numbers that are limited enough to avoid degrading the land.  Arid lands probably cannot sustain grazing;  and semi-arid regions can probably only be grazed sustainably through nomadic practices that move constantly over very large distances.  Even where grass grows lushly, regenerative pasturing requires limiting the number of animals and moving them constantly from one part of the pasture to another.

There are indeed places where grazing livestock makes sense as part of ending hunger.  Where the land is so damaged that only grass will grow, or so steep that row-cropping is not feasible, or in the future on the Great Plains after the Oglalla Aquifer is depleted, grazing may be the best (or only) good agricultural use of those lands.  But the constraint of limiting the numbers of animals to what the land can sustainably support means that such grazing will never supply the huge amounts of cheap meat that are currently in demand.  For cheap abundant meat the way factory farms now produce it is simply neither sustainable nor compatible with enabling all seven-point-something billion of us to be fed.  And Earth has not got enough pasture land for grazing to match the numbers of animals now raised in factory farms.

Conclusion:  pasturing livestock can be part of feeding the world over the long term — but only in sustainable numbers and in particular places.  This would indeed provide some meat, dairy, and eggs for human consumption — but a lot less than we are currently used to, and they would cost significantly more.  Learning to enjoy low-meat diets is really the only way to go if we truly want to end human hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

24. Problems of Factory-Farming Livestock, Revisited

I just read a truly alarming book:  Ellen K. Silbergeld’s 2016 Chickenizing Farms and Food:  how industrialized meat production endangers workers, animals, and consumers.

As the title promises, the book reports on how raising livestock changed from small farmers’ pastures to industrial-type “factory farm” schemes where animals are packed tight into huge buildings and raised to slaughter-weight as fast as possible.  It apparently began with broiler chickens in the area where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia meet, but has now spread all over the world and involves pigs and cattle as well as poultry (both for meat and eggs).

This model has spread fast and widely because it does produce lots of cheap meat, for which there is a huge global demand.  But as Silbergeld discusses at length, it does so with serious downsides.  These include the massive (and as it turns out, superfluous) use of antibiotics, which are rapidly breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing organisms and threatening to cause epidemics of dangerous illnesses that could not be treated.  They also include horrendous pollution from the animals’ manure, which is not treated as the contaminant it is.  The reason for that has to do with the way in which the  big corporations that control the industry contract with farmers to actually raise the animals, but on terms that are so strict and pay so little as to leave these contractors no resources for effectively treating the waste yet absolve the corporations from responsibility for it.  This abuse of the contractors carries over to the vile conditions of employment for workers involved in  raising and slaughtering the animals.  And these workers are not only at risk themselves of terrible injuries and of contracting antibiotic-resistant disease, but they could also infect anyone they come in contact with when they go home.  The now-almost-complete erosion of regulations to protect either the workers or consumers is part of this picture that Silbergeld paints.

Silbergeld asks readers to respect the food choices of people who want to eat the meat that these factory farms produce, and so she insists that industrialized livestock raising is here to stay.  Her solution to the problems she describes is therefore that we should openly acknowledge that livestock raising is now an industry rather than anything that can be called farming and must be regulated as an industry, not treated as agriculture at all.  She proposes tough standards for worker safety, pollution control, and contractor and consumer protection, and posits that government should be held accountable for holding this industry to passable standards.

If this could be accomplished, it might very well solve the abuses Silbergeld describes.  I believe there are only two catches (besides the difficulty of getting governments to buck the interests of large corporations).  One catch is that in Silbergeld’s proposal to control and regulate factory farms, such huge portions of the corn and soybean crops would still be inefficiently feeding livestock as to continue to challenge our farmland to feed us all.  The other is that if the livestock industry really had to pay its workers and contractors a living wage and really had to control and treat the manure adequately, it would surely raise the cost of meat and other animal foods by a considerable margin.  And then the huge amounts of cheap animal foods that are the whole purpose of the factory farms would no longer be cheap.  This would unravel the whole scheme:  the economies of scale provided by industrial-agriculture livestock raising require a massive market, but if the necessary regulation raises the cost of meat significantly then that mass market is no longer massive enough to support the industrial-agriculture scale.

I do accept Silbergeld’s belief that we have no right to disrespect people’s desire for meat.  But I do not see any way for the industrial-model production of animal foods to feed the world.  It co-opts too much of our crop production and, if properly regulated, would probably not permit heavy meat-eating for most people for economic reasons.  This does not mean that people who want meat can’t have it.  But it does mean that meat would mostly be a minor ingredient in foods on most days, and a feast-food just occasionally, if we really want a healthy and well-fed world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

23. Eating Crickets

Also locusts, mealy bugs, and mopane worms (the larvae of a southern African moth) — among many others.  Humans have probably eaten bugs for as long as our species has existed — or even longer, since modern apes and other primates eat them with gusto, and primates may be descended from early insectivores.  The Bible names locusts as kosher for the ancient Israelites.  And in many parts of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania various insects are eagerly enjoyed to this day.

From the point of view of ending hunger, the eating of insects could be enormously important.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of them, and they breed fast and easily and copiously.  Also, they’re small, so they can be grown in relatively small spaces, making them great for urban agriculture as well as rural farms and hunting wild ones.  Nor is such confinement cruel to them as it is for larger creatures like fish, poultry, and mammals.  Furthermore, insects’ efficiency in turning feed into food is excellent:  as high as that of chickens and greater than fish.  They can be raised with very little water, far less than any other food animal.  And there are hundreds of insect species that are listed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as edible — some for every part of the world.

Insects are also highly nutritious.  They are high enough in protein to serve as a substitute for other kinds of meat, including being high in lysine which makes them a good complement for grains.  They are also a good source of useful carbohydrate, unsaturated fats including valuable omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins including B-12, and many minerals including iron and calcium.

And as suggested above, people who do eat various kinds of insects find them delicious.

So what’s not to love? — Besides the ick factor for those of use who were not introduced to these delicacies as children…

Europeans and non-indigenous people of North America have no cultural history of eating insects, and unfortunately most of us (including this writer, sorry) are therefore grossed out by the idea.  Several start-up enterprises here are therefore planning to grind crickets into flour which can be used as an ingredient in, for example, energy bars:  you could then eat them without thinking about what’s in the food.  You also may or may not want to reflect on the fact that the USDA permits a certain amount of insect parts in canned and processed foods, which means that pretty much all of us have already eaten insect bits without knowing it — and it hasn’t hurt us a bit.

Still, for many of us there’s a pretty big ick factor.

This should not discourage us from trying to get over it, or at least to consider overlooking the advent of insect flour as a non-obvious ingredient in processed foods.  And it certainly should not stop efforts to encourage the scaling up of the growing and eating of insects in parts of the world where this is enjoyed, and where hunger is a real problem.  For though until now most insect-eating has involved catching them in the wild or very small-scale endeavors, the farming of many kinds of insects is looking to be very feasible indeed.  So as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, it would be easy enough for urban insect-growers to do much towards feeding people a locally-grown nutritious meat-like food that they already like and would choose as a preference.

If one is already a vegetarian, one can point out that insects are animals, and that one does not eat them for that reason (it’s too much to hope that people will become vegetarian solely in order to avoid eating bugs).  For everyone else, edible insects can be a real part of the solution to world hunger, and should not be overlooked.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

22. What Should US Corn Cropland Do?

A chart I found on the internet showed US “Corn Usage by Segment” for 2015.  If I’m reading it right, only 30.3% of US corn for that year because fuel ethanol;  12.5% was exported (some of this for animal feed);  3.5% became high fructose corn syrup and another 2.2% became other “sweeteners;”  1.5% was listed as “cereal/ other” i.e. corn eaten by people as corn;  and a whopping 47.1% (plus some of the exports) was fed to livestock.

This is not how to feed the world.

I discussed the problem of corn ethanol in my last post.  There is a great deal of data these days to indicate that sugar of any kind is neither healthful nor nutritious.  And while I addressed the concerns with using human-edible crops for animal feed in posts 6 and 7, a few of these points bear a quick revisit.

For one thing — and most to the point when discussing world hunger — livestock is incredibly inefficient in turning feed into food.  After all, some of what any animal eats is simply excreted (a dairy cow that produces 11 gallons of milk per day, for example, also produces some 80 pounds of manure).  Some food is burned for energy;  some becomes fur, feathers,  bones,  teeth/beaks, hoofs, hide, and discarded internal organs.  Crickets,  chickens, and fish turn a full 25% of what they’re fed into food humans can eat, but they are the most efficient.  For pigs, sheep, and cows it takes about 8 to 20 pounds of feed for the animal to produce one pound of food for people.  From the perspective of ending hunger, feeding animals many pounds of grain and soybeans to produce each pound of human food instead of feeding all those many pounds of grains and beans directly to the hungry is simply not excusable.

If that is not enough, there are other problems with the Confined Animal Feeding Operations/CAFOs, i.e., factory farms that use all that feed.  When animals are treated as production units and crowded by the thousands into buildings, they are so stressed and miserable that they are prone to mass die-offs from disease, so continual antibiotics are needed to keep them alive (and putting on weight as fast as possible) — creating antibiotic-resistant disease organisms.  In such conditions the amount of manure they produce can equal that of a small city per CAFO, but inadequate regulation leads chronically to water and air pollution.  That many animals drink vast quantities of water, which removes water from streams and groundwater and can cause environmental damage and shortages of water for other uses (like drinking, bathing, laundry, and irrigating crops for human consumption).  And the industrial-agriculture model that produces the feed has serious environmental problems (as noted in post 19).

Beyond question, factory farms based on subsidies for growing the feed are the pre-eminent way to produce lots of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy.  And cheap animal foods are in high demand.  But producing cheap animal foods in this way directly and seriously impedes ending hunger.

So what should US corn cropland be doing?  How about growing corn and other grains and beans and vegetables for people to eat?

There are two interlocking keys to transforming the current situation into this better one.  One is for people to switch their dietary expectations from high to low consumption of animal foods.  (Vegans and low-dairy vegetarians  are exemplary, but moving to plant-based diets which just use small amounts of animal food would do for most.)  A serious drop in demand for animal foods would leave room for sustainable and appropriate pasturing of livestock but could eliminate CAFOs.  The other key is to adjust farm policies and subsidies so that farmers who now grow commodity corn for feed and ethanol could instead make a living growing corn for eating as corn, while adding the growing of other grains and vegetables that people would eat.  Farmers basically want to make a living growing food.  If government policies provide different ways of doing this — as long as the making-a-living thing is guaranteed — it should not be unacceptable, even if it does mean making some changes.

This brings us to the realm of national politics and policies.  The first step in working towards policies that are better at ending hunger than what we’re doing now is to start the discussion of their necessity.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley