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Legalize Food Production, Protect Migrant Farm Workers

Much of the food grown in this country is grown by workers with no legal right to be here.

This is something that we, as a nation, should be intensely ashamed of. Not because they’re here, but because they generally lack any sort of legal protection, since any abuse they may receive on the job is impossible for them to report without risking deportation. From a less humanitarian perspective, there are communities throughout the country where these migrant workers and their families can add additional load to the services of the region, without necessarily improving the funding of those services. This tends to be more of an issue for education, which is generally funded primarily by property taxes, and there is no such thing as a migrant homeowner.

Fact is, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you think that migrant farm workers should be granted amnesty. They need it. There are too many of them. And most American’s won’t work these jobs anyway, as evidenced by the United Farm Worker’s Take Our Jobs campaign, which has had less than two dozen Americans even try their hands at working on the farm.

Now, I don’t blame people for not taking part in this campaign. I certainly haven’t, and my experience with helping Catherine maintain our garden plot makes me pretty certain that I don’t want to be a professional farm worker. Small scale hobby farm stuff? Yeah, but I’m never going to be a commercial producer.

There has been one prominent American who took part in this challenge. Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, took up this challenge, and presented his two part “Fallback Position” segment where he worked as a migrant farm worker.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fallback Position - Migrant Worker - Zoe Lofgren
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fallback Position - Migrant Worker Pt. 2
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

Okay, yes, Colbert is a clown. Yes, he spends a lot of time making jokes. But that’s his job, he’s on Comedy Central. But more so, he’s demonstrating that these jobs are hard, backbreaking experiences, and the people working them are very hard working people, regardless of their legal status.

However, what really impressed me was the Congressional testimony he references in the second video, presented here by C-SPAN.

Ultimately, we need these people. They work useful, necessary jobs, that most Americans don’t want. Should immigration reform protect American’s options to work these jobs? I think so. And it’s entirely possible that with the higher wages that legal protection is likely to offer, more American’s might consider them.

If there is a downside to this, it’s that food prices are liable to rise. But the human cost born by migrant farm workers is one that, I think, is higher than the potential hit to my pocketbook.

The Feeding of an Obligate Carnivore

Catherine and I have been cat owners for only about six months. We’d both grown up as dog people, but the rules at our condominium complex are written in such a way as to specifically exclude dog ownership, and my wife fell for a hard luck story she saw on Craigslist. We’d planned to take possession of a young mother cat, named Juniper because that is where she was found (and what she’d been eating) by the people who cared for her through her pregnancy. We ended up taking Juniper and one of her kittens, whom we named Ivy due to her love of climbing things.

To ease the transition of the cats as we moved them into their new home, we originally began feeding them what their previous caretaker had fed them. Specifically, Friskies and Meow Mix. However, Catherine had been reading a lot of cat nutrition before we took possession of the cats, and her own background in Zoology made her a bit uncomfortable with the ingredients list on the cans. There was an awful lot of vegetable matter in the food, and what protein there was often came from sources like ‘chicken by-product meal’ and ‘animal digest’. In other words, plenty of roughage that a cat wouldn’t eat in the wild, and what protein there was, tended to be poor quality.

Yet, we fed the cats on it for several weeks. Their world had just changed drastically, and a change in food, we felt was unreasonable. Which is when we discovered what I consider the most disgusting part of this ‘food’. It smells the same exiting the cat, as it does exiting the can. Aside from being a terrible realization (the litter box is in my office, the cats are tidy), it mostly went to show that there was really very little in this food that the cat was actually able to derive nutritional value from! It’s basically what would happen if you ate nothing by white rice at every meal. You’d feel full, certainly, but you’d have little energy, and you’d gain very little nutrition from your diet.

Why is most of this food so poor quality? Simply because the core ingredients: corn, soy, and animal by-products, are the by-products of the food system that feeds us. Incidentally, this is also why, why JD Roth of The Simple Dollar was asked to weigh in on a book that made the claim that pets were a Sustainability nightmare, he argued against the points in the book. We’re feeding our pets industrial waste, so while there is a bit of a loss (packaging, shipping, etc) it’s probably better than simply shipping that stuff to the dump.

He is right, to a point, but I still believe that there is no excuse to feel your pets in a way that completely ignores their need for balanced nutrition. With dogs, this industrial waste food is a little better. Dogs are at least omnivores, they can glean nutritional value from corn (though Soy should still be avoided). Catherine’s dog, who has lived with her parents for 5+ years now, subsisted for some time on rice and green beans. Admittedly the limited diet was at least in part because of other problems, but it was still (with a bit of protein from time to time) nutritionally sufficient.

With cats, it’s different. Cat nutrition is not particularly hard, they don’t need a whole lot of food every day, but the nature of a cat’s diet should be very different from a dog’s. First off, feeding your cat dry food is probably a bad idea. Our cats are drinkers, and will drink from a free cup or bowl if is available, however not every cat is. Cats in the wild drink very little free water, taking in almost all of their liquid from the food that they eat. If your cat is eating dry food, and they don’t drink water freely on their own, they can develop problems like kidney stones.

There are quality brands of wet and dry cat food. Some people really like the Natural Balance brand. Our cats didn’t care for it, and I felt the green pea content was simply too high. A can smelt mostly of green pea when opened. The brand we settled on was Evo from Innova, which are completely grain free and the cat foods are generally 90% or more meat. We do keep around a bit of their dry formula as well. Our elder cat still loves dry food, though she only gets it very rarely (or when she figures out how to open the cupboard where she knows it’s kept). Evo is expensive, for cat food, costing about $1.90 on the higher end per day for a cat just shy of 10 pounds.

While we do still occasionally feed Evo, and plan to move the cats back onto an Evo diet for a few weeks this summer when we’ll be out of town, usually we try to follow a more traditional model of feeding our cats. Historically, people who kept cats fed them bits of meat and bone, or simply let them free feed. I’m not advocating free feeding, due to the effects that roaming cats can have on biodiversity in a region. Our cats only go outside when on a leash.

Our feeding strategy begins with cornish game hens, one hen per week feeds two cats, and adding additional meat (we use a mix of beef, chicken and pork, mostly chicken) as well as added liver. The game hens are important, since they contain the bone (and hence calcium) which is key to the cat’s bowel health. Without enough bone (or egg shell), a cat will likely have very runny bowel movements, which is uncomfortable for the cat, and likely going to make a huge mess out of your litter box. Plus, bone is very filling for the cat, so they typically seem far more sated when they’ve had bone. Note: It is extremely important that this bone not be cooked. Cooked bone is not pliable, and could really hurt your cat when they try to eat it.

We feed our cats about 5 ounces of food a day each. This translates to 35 ounces of meat per cat per week, or 70 ounces for the both of them. We typically prepare 2 weeks worth at a time, though we’re considering upping this to four. We have a good sized freezer, allowing us to stock up on meat when it goes on sale.

Our makeup for preparing one week (for two cats) looks about as follows:

  • One 23 1/3 oz Cornish Game Hen (If the hen is bigger or smaller, we just modify the values below)
  • 3.5 oz Liver (chicken or beef)
  • 3.5 oz other secreting organ (kidneys are great)
  • 40 oz other meat (we do a mix of 2 parts beef, 2 parts pork, 1 part thigh meat chicken, 1 part breast meat chicken)

If you’re having trouble finding ‘secreting organs’, then you can simply replace it with liver, but you’ll want to occasionally feed a can of quality commercial food to ensure that your cats are getting all their necessary vitamins. I always start by breaking down the chicken. I always start by cutting off the breasts the same way you’d be breaking down your thanksgiving turkey, then removing the wings. I then remove the legs, cutting them in half, the cutting the torso in half, back to front. I then break the halves of the chicken into four pieces, leaving me with fourteen bony pieces of various sizes to split between two cats. For breaking down the torso, I suggest a good pair of kitchen shears, they make the job go much faster. Some weeks we will also add in a can of sardines (water packed), breaking the fish between a few meals and feeding them whole to the cats, the oil in the fish helping with coat health.

I then break down the rest of the meat into half to one ounce pieces, which we mix together and break down into bags. We place three meals for each cat into plastic bags, then proceed to freeze all but what we need for that day and the next. We’ve found that three meals is a good compromise for us between going through bags too quickly, and minimizing the amount of raw meat in our fridge, since cats are very sensitive to food that isn’t quite fresh.

This was a difficult process when we first began it. It would take hours, and we’d be exhausting by the time it was done. Now, we can do two weeks in about two hours, and the cats clearly prefer the raw meet diet. They seem to have more energy than they used to, and they’ve been on a full meat diet for several months with seemingly excellent health.

They don’t drink a lot of water from the bowl we leave out, but the litter box contains a good number of urine clumps when we scoop. They don’t poop as much as they used to, but their bowl movements tend to be smaller and more solid, suggesting that they are able to process nearly all of what they’re eating. And as the person who has to sit five feet away from the cats when they are defecating, the near lack of odor is definitely preferred.

The raw diet is also supposed to promote tooth health, since chewing on the bones and connective tissue should clear plaque from their teeth. I’m not sure I noticed bad breath from our cats before, so I can’t say that this has improved that, but the fact that they do chew their food now does make me think there is something too that. Before, with the traditional ‘pat&eacute’ that most cat food is in, our cats would literally just lap up their dinner without doing any chewing. I’m positive that that didn’t help their oral health, even if I’m not sure about the raw diet helping.

Converting the cats was surprisingly easy. At first, we tried to mix the raw meat in with cans of Evo. The younger cat got it immediately, the elder cat tended to just lick off the paté and walk away. We eventually tried just giving her the meat and not providing any Evo, and she seemed to catch on pretty fast. Once we had them eating meat, we started working in bone. This wasn’t really a problem, except that Ivy, the younger cat, had a bit of trouble with the larger leg bones when she was still really young (mind you, she’s still under a year old). She’d gnaw off the ends of the bone, get a bit of the marrow from inside, but would ultimately leave some behind.

We occasionally introduce new meats to the cats. We tried duck, but the bones were too substantial to replace the cornish game hens at this point (the cats are both still pretty young), and we might try a bit of rabbit from the local farmer’s market. Ultimately, we find it easier to feed just the trinity of beef, chicken and pork. They’re the easiest to get. The cheapest. And our cats don’t always respond well to new meat. We are also considering moving toward the ‘prey model’ or feeding, where we’d buy freeze dried mice, like you’d feed to pet snakes or something, and feed those directly. The nice thing about that approach is that the meals are already balanced for necessary nutrition, however, we have no idea if it would work for our cats, and we don’t have a local pet store where we can buy a few mice to try to feed. Plus, our cats play with felt mice, and I definitely don’t want them playing with their food.

We’ve been happy raw feeders for the last six months or so. And our cats have been very happy with the change. Cost wise, I believe it saves us a bit of money off the high-end cat food we were feeding before, and breaking down the meat goes smoother every time we do it. It’s been absolutely worth it for us, and our cats definitely seem healthier than on the grocery-store cat food, and to a far lesser extent the high end commercial cat food.

2010 Garden

Catherine and I spent most of Sunday working on our Garden at the Pullman Community Gardens. It’s our third year at the garden, though last years was….not precisely successful due to our priorities changing away from the garden (unfortunately). This year, aside from having two weeks in the midwest during the hottest part of the summer, we’re committed to making sure we have an effective harvest this year. Given that we’ve both stuck with a major lifestyle change (daily gym trips) for over six weeks. Admittedly this is a habit that isn’t fully formed and risks breaking (the real test will be after returning from those 14 days in the midwest), but the committment shown there, especially on my part, makes me hopeful that focusing on the garden won’t be an ordeal.

Our garden will not fulfill all our vegetable needs by any stretch, however, it should give us a fairly substantial bounty, especially since a lot of our seeds were either saved from last year (or two years ago), or are from commercial seedpacks we already had from last year. Catherine started many of our plants from seed several weeks ago, including tomatoes and peppers that aren’t going out into the garden just yet. For the seed starts, we just used plastic seed trays (that we intend to reuse). We used plastic instead of peat for two reasons. First, we dug up a lot of peat pots this year that probably had a negative impact on our plants last year. Plus, the environmental impact of peat is a lot higher than we’d known. In the future, we’re considering making pots out of newspaper. We also invested in a $30 seed mat which gently warms our seedlings, which has caused them to really take off. We’re considering waiting until garden stuff goes on sale at the end of this season and picking up a second.

We aren’t completely done planting, obviously. but we did get a lot of stuff in yesterday. Here’s a rough sketch with our garden as it stands:

Garden - 2010.04.25

Our paths are raised above the beds, and this year we’ll be putting down newspaper and straw to try to keep the weeds down. I had to dig out some BIG weeds, and we’re still fighting some grass and other rhizomitous weeds. By having the paths above the beds, it’s easier for us to water, and with the high clay content in our soil, the ground tends to stay wet pretty well. It’s a later start than we wanted, but at least it’s all in before Mother’s day, so we should be alright.

Closing the Doors on McDonaldland?

The new Senate Appropriation’s Bill contains language requiring the formation of a Working Group investigating how food is marketed to children (defined as anyone under 18). This working group only has until July 15 to report on their findings, but some think that this is the beginning of the end for child-centric food advertising. Some people are comparing this to the late-90s ending of the “Old Joe” Camel advertising regime, but I don’t think that’s really a fair comparison. It’s not yet illegal to sell hamburgers to children, after all.

I’m not going to spend any time defending Ronald McDonald. I grew up during a very active time in the McDonaldland Saga, and I suspect my general impression that it’s not that bad anymore stems more from the fact that I don’t follow things related to that target demographic than any actual reality.

The argument for retiring Ronald McDonald is pretty straight-forward. The ad campaign is designed to cause children to nag their parents to visit the McDonald’s, but also to make it seem that, by saying no, the parent is, in some way, showing that they don’t love their child. The figures in the report suggest that 79% of respondents to their poll, want Ronald to be retired, many of them strongly favoring the idea.

I am not a parent, and don’t foresee myself becoming one for several more years. I do have plenty experience around small children, from cousins in the past, to now the children of friends and family. It’s not the same, admittedly. If I say no to a child, I usually don’t have to spend the rest of the day, week, month, or year around them nearly all the time. It can be seen to afford me the opportunity to be the jerk, without having to deal with the long-term consequences.

However, while I understand that saying ‘no’ against the force of the marketing behemoth being aimed toward children is exhausting, and certainly that conceding from time to time isn’t the end of the world, I’m not sure I’m convinced that government intervention here is necessary, or even desirable. Do I think the ‘free speech’ defense of such child-focused advertising is appropriate? Not really, but I don’t necessarily see it as being invalid.

Advertising is only going to become more insidious. Product placement is becoming more and more common. Hell, have you watched an episode of Chuck lately? Between all the trips to Subway, and the Windows logo prominently on practically every piece of computer hardware on the show…

And I know for the ‘tweens’ things are just as bad. How many young girls want some new piece of clothing because Hannah Montana is wearing it? How long until we start to see her and her friends meeting regularly at McDonald’s to chat over a cheeseburger and fries?

At the end of the day, retiring Ronald McDonald and ad-icons like him are only going to drive those advertising dollars to different locations, and probably places where it’ll be even harder to do anything about. Saying no to a child isn’t going to get any easier, and certainly there is necessity to use saying ‘no’ as a learning opportunity, or to occasionally acquiesce. What’s the other option? Lock your kids away from all media that you haven’t reviewed first? Not likely.

Bill Marler Speaks to WSU on Food Safety and the Law

Last Wednesday, Bill Marler, a Personal Injury Lawyer focusing on Food Safety issues gave his Common Reading lecture at Washington State University. The talk was entitled “Chasing the Ambulance Away: Reshaping the Role of the Personal Injury Lawyer in Society and the Law”, which I couldn’t help but chuckle at since the first time I was exposed to Mr. Marler, I went on to accuse him of being an ambulance chaser.

That was, as I’ve said since, a grossly unfair characterization, as Bill’s history, which I’ll be discussing some later, has tended toward cases where the injury sustained by the people he’s represented has typically involved enormous consequences, typically requiring lifelong medical treatment. More importantly, from my perspective, is that in far too many of the cases Bill’s worked on, compelling evidence has been found that the defendants either knowingly disregarded the potential health risks, or willfully remained ignorant of the potential for damage existing within their own facilities.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that in the State of Washington, since 1913, after the Mazetti v. Armour & Co. case (75 Wash. 622) (for which I can find several references online, but no transcript or anything), there has been a legally binding implication that anyone manufacturing food (which includes growing or processing) is providing a warranty that the food product is safe. So, for Food Safety, there isn’t even a question of guilt. If you can prove a food product is responsible for sickening someone (or rather, many someones, since usually you need that to find a pattern), they are unquestionably at fault. Their intent has nothing to do with the fact that they’re responsible, though certainly damages can be modified by the reasonableness of their efforts to do the right thing.

The good part about this system is that it protects retailers (grocers, not always restaurateurs), who often are unable to know a product might be contain an infection, though of course, visible signs of problems that a grocer does nothing about are still their liability, and a restaurant that handles their food properly might not be liable if a shipment they get in is infected, provided their handling practices don’t make the problem worse (more on that later).

I could do a recap of Bill’s cases, but I’ll just touch on the big ones and some of what i found interesting about the sort of repeating links of them. First, was the Jack in the Box case from 1993, which sort of made Bill famous. A case where there was proof that Jack in the Box’s executives were more concerned about hitting a two minute preparation time, instead of cooking their meat all the way through. Saving thirty seconds per burger killed 4 people.

In 1996, Odwalla, after being told by the US Army that their plants were too filthy for the Army to buy their Juice for sale to Army personnel and families, continued to ship Apple juice that they knew was possibly bad, all because they were trying to pad their profit margins to look good to Wall Street. E-mails from inside the company showed that they considered doing more stringent testing, but chose not to so that they could claim ignorance of the extent of the problem (and possibly even it’s existence).

Or a 2003 case where a restaurant was storing their scallion’s in the same container for months at a time, which eventually became described as a ‘Hepatitis Soup’. In this case, it happened to be an import product, but nearly all cases Bill has tried over the last 17 years have been from domestic products.

Food Poisoning is a difficult thing to prove. Many food-borne illnesses take days, if not weeks, to incubate. So tracking down the cause of the illness is very difficult. The food production industry does virtually no self-policing. Bill described a peanut-butter plant in Georgia as being so filthy that you’d think twice about taking your car to an auto repair garage that was that messy. And that plant hadn’t been inspected in seven years, because the FDA doesn’t have the resources necessary to enforce it’s own standards.

Things are certainly bad. But are they any worse than they’ve ever been? Or are we simply better at tracking and identifying the problems such that they just seem worse? I think it’s a combination. Surely we’re better at tracing problems, but unlike Bill, I think a strong claim can be made that overuse of low-levels of antibiotics will apply an artificial selection force for strains of the bacteria that are more resistant to a given antibiotic, the so-called ‘superbug’. I feel the biggest change, and the most damaging issue, is the centralization of the food system. Even fifty years ago, the thought of a farm in California producing contaminated spinach that was going to sicken people in New York was practically laughable. The idea that a state like California would grow the majority of the nation’s tomato crop, which are shipped nationwide, was also laughable. The attractiveness of this system from an industrial standpoint is obvious, but it is likely the reason our food is less safe.

When asked what he eats, Bill replied that he tries to eat local food as much as he can. Shorter distance between field to plate means fewer handlers, which means fewer opportunities for mishandling. But also, it tends to have a shorter time to consumption, which can prevent an infection from taking hold. For instance, a Spinach-caused outbreak of Salmonella in 2007 would likely have been a non-issue, if the spinach had been picked and sold at a Farmer’s Market instead of bagged and shipped clear across the country.

Solving this is a major problem. The Free Market is weakened by the fact that most consumers never hear about the causes of these problems, or that they can be convinced via advertising or familiarity that the product is trustworthy. Hell, I don’t know how many people I know who’ve blamed Taco Bell for some kind of food-related distress, only to continue eating there. What about Regulation? We live in a time right now where the general public doesn’t trust Congress to do something that doesn’t in some way benefit corporate interest more than the general public, and then the issue with the current house-passed bill languishing for attention in the Senate because the senators are too busy with health-care reform.

Litigation isn’t really helping because it’s reactive, and a lot of companies just view litigation as a cost of doing business. Something they just have to put up with. What’s worst in my mind, is that fact that there is no criminal liability, even in cases where executives force the shipment of goods that they are almost (or even absolutely) certain are contaminated. In China, these people have been known to be drug out into the street and shot. While that’s not an answer appropriate here, Bill says he’s only seen a very small handful actually go to jail.

Bill provided a top eleven list, of things he wants to see done to improve food safety, which I’ll repeat below. Before I do however, I wanted to just boil things down to the basics of what I think he was indicating needed to happen. We, as American’s, need to start spending more on food. We can’t expect the regulation or devotion to quality that we expect unless we’re willing to pay for it. Instead, we now have a system where food producers are forced to cut corners because retailers will squeeze them and threaten to pull their business unless they drop wholesale rates, a major problem when you’re in a business that already operates at razor-thin margins.

Bill’s Top 11 Food Safety Changes:

  1. Improve Surveillance - Track food from farm to plate
  2. Better cooperation by government
  3. Train, Certify and Vaccinate food handlers
  4. Stiffen license requirements (but please do it in a way that is still fair to small producers)
  5. Increase food inspections
  6. Reform agencies to be proactive, not reactive
  7. Criminalize knowingly shipping tainted product
  8. Use technology to make food more traceable
  9. Promote research (particularly research not funded by Industry)
  10. Provide tax breaks to improve producer profitability
  11. Improve Customer Understanding

I’ve added a bit of commentary to the above points (anything in parentheses) on where I see potential problems with the regulation that would be approved by a Department of Agriculture whose policy has led to the centralized agricultural system which is at least partially responsible for the problems we have today.

What I felt was the most important takeaways from the talk were that we need to find a way to make the food industry more accountable, hopefully from within, since as it stands they can willfully ship infected goods and not face much in the way of consequences. For now, the best way to be safe seems to be eating locally grown food, which has received a minimal amount of handling. It may not be fool-proof, but it’s the best we have, and with luck, we’ll all be able to eat this way in the near future.

Genetically Modified Organisms to Destroy Organics?

The USDA is currently accepting public comments on the issue of allowing a Genetically Modified Alfalfa plant developed by Monsanto, which could, by the USDA’s own research, infect organic alfalfa farms, potentially causing them to lose their ‘organic’ labeling. Needless to say, many people are upset about it, not the least of which are the people at Food Democracy NOW!, who want your comments. Now, this product has made it past USDA environmental review, that, in theory, shows that the environmental impact of this GMO crop will fall within acceptable levels, however those are defined.

FDN is calling this something that ‘threatens the very fabric of the organic industry.’ Now, I think that battle was lost years ago, when Organic was defined in such a way that the biggest players in Organic are companies like Kraft and Heinz, but the real issue here, in my opinion, is the danger of these GMO crops. Not that they’ll cause health issues with those who consume them, but rather the danger to the ecosystem, particularly when you look at the docket and realize that this GMO is only meant to be herbicide-resistant. A so-called ‘Roundup Ready’ crop.

It is the nature of agriculture to support the cultivation of certain plants at the cost of others, however, with these ‘roundup ready’ crops, it encourages wholesale dumping of these chemical plant-killers in manners that don’t necessarily control the application of the chemical very well, which can kill plenty of plant life that is found in areas external of the GMO crop, further reducing plant diversity (and most likely insect/animal diversity by extension) in those areas. Plus, since the plant has been modified to be difficult to kill, when it does spread to non-GMO versions, it becomes impossible to separate the GMO version from the non-GMO version, further reducing biodiversity. It is this cross-breeding between GMO and non-GMO life, and the fact that the non-GMO life is almost guaranteed to be the dominant form over time, that worries many ecologists.

The monoculture present in modern agriculture is already worrying, but has, until recently, still been based on traditional selection, with change in an organism happening slowly over many generations, based solely on selecting traits based on what was most desirable in the current generation. With GMOs, we can greatly change very fundamental things about an organism in a single generation, and the question that hasn’t been answered in a manner that is acceptable to macro-ecologists is if it’s even possible to do that in a way that doesn’t have potentially expensive ripples. I suspect that the answer to that question is that no, we can’t have GMOs that don’t have a severe impact on the ecosystem around them, and I don’t think we’re ready to be exercising those changes.

Genetically Engineered Pain Insensitivity Misses the Point

As reported by the New York Times and Change.Org’s Sustainable Food Blog, researchers at the University of Toronto and Washington University have devised a means to make mammals insensitive to pain. So far, they’ve only worked on mice, but the protein that they’ve genetically engineered away from the mice is common to pretty much all mammals.

The writers reporting on this are discussing the development due to how it could impact commercial animal production in the US, which is rife with animal cruelty abuses, like veal production in boxes, or docking of pigs tails to keep them from biting each other’s tails. The argument is that by making the animals insensitive to pain, they are no longer as effected by the unpleasant conditions in which they live. Of course, it could cause issues with the animals not moving away from potentially dangerous situations because they are simply not bothered by pain. For instance, part of the reason pigs tails are docked as so that they’ll fight back if their tail gets bit. Without sensitivity to pain, they’re not likely to fight back, which raises the threat of infection to the animal.

However, the biggest problem is that this research, while interesting, wouldn’t actually solve the problem. From an animal rights perspective, it probably encourages even more egregious abuses, since poor handlers will likely be rougher with the animals than before, simply because the stimulus they were providing is no longer effective. Plus, how does the lack of perception of pain make the actions any less offensive? But ignoring the issue of animal rights and cruelty, this solution does nothing to solve the problems that modern commercial animal production causes elsewhere.

The environmental impact of CAFOs? Could get worse, since the animals insensitivity to pain encourages even higher densities. Which encourages greater centralization. Which increases the food safety risk. While the removal of this protein is unlikely to have any negative health effects on it’s own, and animal breeding is easier to control than plant breeding, there isn’t much risk of some of dangers of genetically modified food that are often raised, but the most likely end results of this technology are highly negative.

The research is interesting, and the knowledge of the mammalian pain experience could be used to generate some new pain treatments. However, as a technology with reasonable application in modern commercial animal production….I don’t see it. And I see it making things worse.

Michael Pollan Speech at WSU

Several weeks back, on January 13, Michael Pollan spoke at Washington State Univeristy as part of this years Common Reading program. Having read both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Eater’s Manifesto, I was excited to have the opportunity to listen to the man speak (though, like an idiot, I forgot to bring my physical copy of the Manifesto for signing). I’ve failed to write about this sooner, primarily because I haven’t taken the time, but I did post during the event to my twitter.

At it’s source, there wasn’t a whole lot of surprises in his talk to people who’ve read his work. He’s been beating the same drum for quite a while, that modern food production is simply unsustainable.

However, it was really interesting for him to be talking to a research institution with a rich history of agricultural research. He focused a lot on the role that an organization like WSU could play in reinventing agriculture, moving away from modern industrial practices to a method that is at the same time more traditional but also based on new, as yet undone, research into what makes the most effective post-Organic farming.

In the agri-system Pollan envisions the farmer becomes an intimately involved steward of the land, ensuring balance between plant and livestock raising. For instance, one Argentian farm he described had found that growing several years of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, and raising grazing stock on those fields, allowed several years of nitrogen-stripping crops (wheat and others) to be planted in a field without requiring any additional chemical support for the farm.

He spoke of an Urban Farm in Detroit that employs (with good wages) over a half-dozen people, and feeds many more, which is run mostly in greenhouses, using vermicomposting to heat their facilities. They are even able to raise fish and watercress in a symbiotic system that, according to Pollan, produces nearly zero waste (I’d have to see it to believe it, but it’s an interesting thought). That particular farm is also covered in the most recent Urban Farm magazine, which looks to be a promising publication.

Pollan spoke often about creating a ‘post-industrial’ form of agriculture based on this research, but I think that he might be downplaying the fundamental understanding of land management that almost all farmers had before the agri-revolution post-World War II. Still, codifying that understanding through the scientific process will be necessary to prove the viability of these methods.

Pollan did discuss this briefly, but I think it needs to be focused greater on the necessity of changing the overall structure of the Western Diet. We need more farmers. We need to spend more on our food. And we need to eat less meat. Meat production is always going to be more resource intensive than growing vegetables. Catherine and I have tried to have at least two meals a week vegetarian. It’s been working well, though I’m not terribly well versed in cooking without meat.

What Pollan didn’t focus on as much as I thought he should, was the message that our expectations about food are not reasonable. We can’t eat meat every day of the week. We can’t expect to get any produce at any time. It’s about expectation management, and I don’t think Pollan expressed that enough. He did talk about it a bit, but fundamentally, it’s the biggest problem, and the one that needs to be addressed to most.

Killing Me Softly....With Fructose?

Nearly a full year after the initial publication of the findings, UK newspaper, The Times Online, published a story covering a bit of research done at the University of California - Davis which was published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008, entitled Endocrine and metabolic effects of consuming beverages sweetened with fructose, glucose, sucrose, or high-fructose corn syrup. In the study, principal investigator Kimber L Stanhope performed a study where they fed two groups of people very similar diets, one group using glucose as their primary sweetener, the other using fructose.

And their findings, are really telling. The short version, is that there appears to be a very distinct difference in the metabolic processes that break down fructose compared to glucose. But the short version, isn’t very interesting. If you’re like me, and work on a College Campus which grants you access to a multitude of journals, or you can go to a nearby college to peruse their library, the article is written in fairly simple language, and is only a few pages long, so I do encourage you to read it if you can.

The research supports the hypothesis that consumption of fructose is a factor in the development of diabetes (specifically Diabetes mellitus), which can most simply be described as a selection of conditions where a person’s insulin systems are broken in some way, either by not producing enough insulin, or responding abnormally to the presence of insulin. The studies show that the body produces less insulin and leptin, two hormones which are used as signals to the brain regarding energy balance. Essentially, with this system in place, our brains have trouble knowing how much energy we have derived from our food, leading us to eat more (to gain energy), and move less (to conserve what energy we have).

These figures were based on essentially a pair of one-day observations of the subjects, so some people are inclined to deny the findings out of hand, but while the logistics of doing a meaningful long-term study with all the variables controlled are basically impossible, it’s still a telling result, and this lab, and others, appear to be moving forward with similiar research on other primates. On rhesus monkeys, they found, over the course of a year, that the monkey’s fed on fructose as opposed to glucose tended to put on nearly 30% more weight, and (over the short term, at least) exhibited significantly less energy expenditure. The were lethargic. Now, after the 12 month mark, the glucose monkeys were almost as lethargic as the fructose ones, but these rhesus monkeys were getting over 40% of their daily calories in the form of sugar, and the dramatic reduction the 6 month and 12 month calculation in activity for the glucose monkeys (which took them from a ~.5% drop to a ~7.5% drop (where the fructose monkeys were at 6 months), does warrant further inquiry, that I’ve no doubt is being worked on. In the same period, the fructose monkeys went from ~7.5% drop in activity to a ~9% drop, significant, but not nearly as dramatic. It is most probably that gaining 40% of your diet from any sugar is going to be highly damaging, but at the very least, glucose seems to be less damaging in the short term, making it a better candidate for using in moderation.

More frightening was the findings regarding lipid metabolism. While both fructose and glucose encourage the production of fat, over a 10 week study, where each group recieved 25% of their energy requirements from sweetened beverages, the fructose group saw a dramatic increase in their levels of plasma triacylglcerol, a key component in most animal and vegetable fats. Further, the fatty deposits are consistent with medical evidence of the precursors of Atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fatty plaque on the inside of arteries, commonly believed to be a precursor to heart disease.

Incidentally, even though we talk about ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ (HFCS), HFCS is not actually pure fructose. The most common form is only about 55% fructose, the rest being made up of glucose. Up until the 1970s, the primary sweeteners used were about 50%-50% mixes of fructose and glucose, so while the evidence put forward by this research suggests we’d be better served by reducing the fructose level instead of the glucose level, as a sweetener goes, HFCS isn’t the most chemically evil sweetener in the world.

The problem with HFCS, is that it’s insidious. It’s everywhere. Currently, the estimated mean consumption of added sweeteners by Americans is 15.8%. That number is based on a study published in 2000, which was based on data from the mid-1990s. Now, this number is well below the suggested maximum intake from added sugars of 25%, but the trend being seen among younger people is getting dangerously close to that (in my opinion frighteningly high) level anyway. More recent surveys of just beverage intake suggested that college students were getting ~25% of their daily caloric requirements from sugary beverages every day, and 13 year-olds were seeing at least 15%. And that is just from soft drinks, fruit drinks, and juices with added sugar. I’m frankly scared of what the figures would indicate when you start including the fact that even the most basically processed food you’ll find at the grocery store or chain restaurant almost certainly has added sugar as well.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the results of more study on the rhesus monkeys are, since it appeared that the glucose monkeys lethargy were converging with that of the fructose monkeys (and giving the sharp uptick of the curve, had the potential to surpass it). At the end of the day, the study tells us little about the current dietary world. Yes, fructose is worse metabolically than glucose, but, chemically speaking, table sugar is not much different than HFCS anyway (I’d love to see a similar study comparing table sugar to HFCS-55, though I suspect the findings would show minimal difference). Ultimately, long term exposure to Glucose was starting to show effects similar to fructose as well. From a health perspective, the answer isn’t to switch sugars, it’s to reduce them. By how much? Well, without accurate data on sugar consumption, it would be pretty damn hard to gauge, but cutting out those sugar-added beverages would be a good start.

Credit: I first had my attention to this story raised by the Sustainable Food Blog at Change.org.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

I’ll admit, I was skeptical when Tom Vilsack was appointed US Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack’s entire political career had been from the heart of the corn belt. He’s a noted supporter of corn-based ethanol. In short, he seemed like another Big-Ag shill who had taken over the chief role in US farm policy.

It appears I was wrong.

While I wouldn’t say that Vilsack is anti-big agriculture, he’s done a lot of work promoting farmer’s markets, and other activities that I do support, including the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer” campaign, which provides support to small-scale local farmers, and even talks about the health importance of a diet based more around fresh fruits and vegetables and meats than the processed fare that many Americans, especially lower-income families, live on today.

Now, I’m still not a supporter of this administration. I think that the USDA needs to do more to revamp the agricultural system, but the work that is being done to encourage the development of local and regional food systems is exciting, and needs to be encouraged.