February 26th, just a few weeks ago, was “Ash Wednesday”, the day when many Christians around the world observe a day of fasting, the beginning of a 40 day preparation for Easter. On this day they abstain from eating meat. Coincidentally, I turned on the radio while driving to catch an interview with Mark Bittman, the celebrated food writer, on the topic of plant based meat substitutes. It’s worth a listen if you have time;
As you know, the introduction of plant-based burgers and sausage at fast food outlets like Tim’s and Burger King drew a lot of media attention last summer. The marketing message for “Beyond Meat”, and the “Impossible Burger” relies heavily on the ideas that animal agriculture is bad for the environment and that a plant-based diet is better for your personal health. First important thing to know; this is a multi-billion dollar product launch by venture capitalists hoping to cash in on an emerging consumer trend. In this interview, Bittman takes apart their claims.
Is a “Beyond” burger better for your health? No way, according to Bitmann. Yes – we should eat more vegetables and fruits and fish. The health benefits of lowering the proportion of meat in our North American diet are well established. If you want protein substitutes for animal products, beans, peas, lentils are all excellent choices. But no one in the health sciences will tell you that an ultra-processed mix of plant proteins with a dozen chemicals on the ingredient list is better for you than ground beef!
Is animal agriculture bad for the environment? This is the tricky part. It depends on how the animals are raised. There is no question that mainstream, intensive confinement livestock production contributes to the global environmental problem. But this is not the only way to farm! Raising farm animals in pasture-based systems changes the equation dramatically. There is lots of science confirming the fact that switching cattle feed alone from grain to grass, moves that sector from being part of the problem to part of the solution.
I must say that after nearly 40 years in the organic food business, I can understand and sympathize with the bewilderment of ordinary people who want to do what is best for their families, but hear all kinds of conflicting messages. So many claims! So much hype! A new “miracle diet” or revelation of health risk in the news every month.
Because we try to make a living growing and selling food, we pay closer attention to these emerging ideas than most of you. We also have the advantage of being entrenched in the organic food movement from the time when it was just starting. We came from conventional agriculture and know the mindset that justifies all the compromises made in the last decades. (link to helicopters article) Here are some of the foundational principles that lead us to farm the way we do. You may find them helpful in sorting through the maze of ideas about what you should eat.
We need to do what is best on three fronts. You could say that we have three main stakeholders in the discussion of how to farm; the soil, the animals and the people who eat the food. Pasture based, organic farming is the best way we have found to look after all three.
The Soil Because we rely on pasture, most of our land is devoted to grass. It is covered year round and capturing energy from the sun from spring to fall, nurturing soil organisms and turning carbon from the air into soil organic matter. Conventional crop farming depletes soil organic matter which is in effect burning the carbon out of the soil and adding it to the atmosphere. If we don’t sustain the soil health, we can’t sustain ourselves. Ultimately, civilizations can only last if their farming practices maintain and build soil.
The Animals It doesn’t take a degree in animal behavioural psychology to know that cows with calves, pigs and chickens are better off outside enjoying their pasture paradise than they would be in confinement, surrounded by concrete and steel. We have found that happy animals are more likely to be healthy animals. As we commented in last month’s newsletter, (link to last month’s video – pigs on pasture) raising pigs this way takes a lot more effort. It’s not as efficient as a factory farm – but we are convinced it’s better!
The People We want the best food for our families. The complex science of how what we eat makes us healthy or sick is developing rapidly. It increasingly points toward the undeniable link between healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people. This is the basic belief that motivated the organic food movement from the beginning; now we are achieving the analytical skills to understand what we knew intuitively to be a basic truth.