Why Sustainable Farming is Important For Our Future
I happen to live in a place and time, where cattle are reared on acres of luscious grass. On fields dedicated solely to the pursuits of agriculture. But is this a dying trend?
Introducing Pastured Farming
In a small village in the Zürich Oberland (German for Zürich highlands), the cows roam freely. From the bells around their necks, a cacophony of sounds emerges, somewhat reassuring and comforting. Comforting at least to me.. because these cows are privileged, and I know it. Privileged to pasture freely throughout their lives, and not just for a period of time.
This method of animal farming is not the norm. This is the exception. The norm is factory farming, where animals like cows, pigs and chicken are raised in animal feeding operations. In confinements that are sometimes no larger than the animals themselves. Forced to stand sometimes knee-deep in their own waste matter. Injected hormones and needless antibiotics to increase their yield and weight. In effect, subjected to unacceptable levels of torture and cruelty..
I say this, not from a vegetarian, animal rights activist, but rather as a flesh-eating omnivore with a conscience. Some of the methods employed by factory farming are simply not conducive for, and are a violation of the human-animal bond. However, modern factory farming is in a sense, a by-product of our changing lifestyles – our population is increasing, we are eating more meat, and our portion sizes are increasing. And or course, there is the 21st century’s un-ending search for corporate profits.
Pastured Farming vs. Factory Farming: Does it Matter?
From the history of our evolution, we know that once upon a time, all cows started out as calves drinking cows milk. After about 12 weeks, they were weaned off milk and the transition to “solid” food aka grass began to take place. Today, the situation is much different. Nowadays, in many animal operations, calves are fed a milk-replacer for the first 8 – 12 weeks, then “allowed” to pasture on grass for only the first 6 – 12 months of their life. Subsequently, they are transferred to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or feedlots with hundreds or thousands of other cows, where they are fed concentrated feeds. The goal of the Feedlots is to increase the weight and yield of the animal. To take the cow from approx. 650 pounds at admission into a feedlot to 1200 pounds in the shortest amount of time.
Seventy-five years ago, beef cattle were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, partially thanks to an efficient, and industrialised process that has transformed beef into a cheap fast food, today’s beef cattle grow to slaughter size in less than two years. To rapidly increase their body weight so they can be sent to slaughter in the shortest possible time, the cows are fed an unnatural diet of genetically modified grains, in the form of concentrated feed. These feeds are typically made of corn, and its’ by-products, soy and soy hulls. These pose an inherent problem as cows are ruminants and their digestive systems have evolved to efficiently process grass and not grains. The result of this mismatch is a host of digestive problems for these cows, which ultimately make the animals ill, and reduces the nutritional value of the beef from these animals.
This scale of industrial farming also creates public health hazards in other ways. If the facilities are overcrowded, as they so often are, it’s a healthy breeding ground and perfect conditions for the spread of bacteria and infection from cow to cow, or from chicken to chicken. If you have ever had the pleasure of squeezing into the crowded carriage of a London Underground tube at peak period, then you have an appreciation of how easy it is for to pick up a common cold or flu infection during flu season. All it takes is one cough or sneeze from an infected person. It is no different with animals in confined spaces
Because over-crowded animals are susceptible to infection and disease, most facilities treat the animals with low-levels of antibiotics to harness the double cocktail effect of preventing illness and promoting rapid weight gain. The unwitting side effect of this therapy is twofold. First there is the increasing prevalence of superbugs – antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and second, over time, the consumption of beef subjected to this antibiotic therapy can reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics in us, human patients.
But there are other concerns beyond food borne illnesses. Animals who lack the freedom to forage due to being held in confined operations are usually given animal feed which may introduce public health threats. Between 1986 – 1998, more than 180,000 cattle in the UK were infected with Mad Cow disease because they were being fed animal by-products. The FDA also recently admitted that nearly 70% of chickens sold in the U.S contain arsenic. Broiler chickens often receive arsenic-based feed additives to promote a pinker, healthier-looking flesh and a plump appearance. Arsenic is a carcinogenic and toxic chemical, which in high doses, is fatal.
Health Benefits of Pastured Produce
Humane treatment of animals isn’t the only reason to by pastured eggs, meat, and dairy products. The pastured versions of all three are significantly more nutritious and healthier than factory farmed equivalents along a number of dimensions. For example:
Eggs from pastured hens have less cholesterol and less saturated fat than factory-farmed eggs. They also contain more nutrients – double the omega-3’s, tons more vitamins A, D and E than factory-farmed eggs.
Pastured eggs are easy to recognise. They have bright, and deep orange, gooey yolks whereas factory farmed eggs (this includes labels like caged, cage-free, free-range) have yolks that are yellowy in colour. This deep colour comes from the macronutrient beta carotene obtained from the grass (and some bugs) they eat while foraging outside.
Meat from grass-fed animals is similarly better for you. It has substantially less total and saturated fat, and less cholesterol. It contains more of vitamins E and C, and more omega-3’s than factory farmed meat. As an example, 100% grass fed beef has about three times the omega-3’s of factory-farmed beef. Similarly, milk from pastured cows contains more omega-3’s and more of vitamins A and E, again due to the diet of the cows.
Is Pastured Produce Sustainable?
If pastured produce is humane, and overall healthier and better for you, why are more of us, therefore, not consuming pastured produce? The answer simply comes down to price and availability.
First, Availability: Factory-farmed produce is prolific whereas you have to put in some leg work to find pastured produce – especially if you do not live in the countryside like I do, surrounded by pasture farmers. However, your best bet are either buying directly from the farmers, or going to a Farmers’ market or a Farmers’ Association. If you live in Switzerland, there are a few places for general pastured produce, or pastured eggs
Then, price: That old “you get what you pay for” is so cliché, but so true. It is no secret that pastured produce is more expensive than factory-farmed produce. But there are justifiable reasons for this difference in price. Pound for pound, the cost of producing a pound of pastured beef is higher than that of producing factory-farmed beef. But additionally, pastured produce is a nutritionally superior product to factory-farmed produce. Taking these into account, pastured produce will not be competing on price with factory-farmed produce.
Sustainable Choices for Consumers
But as a consumer, we too have decisions to make. Too often, we do not stop to ask the right questions. How many times have we stopped to ask or wonder how supermarkets can offer such cheap milk and meat? While I do not advocate for needlessly high grocery bills, there are some of us who would happily spend hundreds or thousands on luxury items of clothing or holidays, and so why quibble over that extra 5p for a litre of milk produced by pastured cows?
In my view, the food we consume should warrant the extra due diligence and extra little associated cost, especially, if we also derive more nutrients from it on a penny-for-penny basis. I am not being naive by asking that the cow I eat has the freedom during its lifetime to graze outside. I know that this act does not automatically elevate them to a higher standard of welfare. And I know that they too will inevitably meet the fate that belies animals raised for food.
Rather importantly, this act gives me comfort, that my beef comes from a farm which places more emphasis on value-add than volume. And, value-add means milk from cows fed a diet largely of forage, from fields rich in biodiversity, and pesticide-free.
Grazing on fields is a natural behaviour for animals, and one they should be allowed to express. And I can rest assured, safe i the knowledge that I am not unwittingly feeding hormone-laden, antibiotic-ridden, pesticide-infused produce to my children, who are helplessly relying on me to make the right decision for theirs and my health.