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Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.
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As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.
While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.
The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.
Nothing natural about it
Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.
“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.
When food labels that say organic aren’t
Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.
There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.
So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.
Top photo composite:
Andrew Gunther and guide cover. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute
And before food, there was pollination. The hum of bees heralds the presence of pollen and nectar entering the apiary, and that means the bees enable good and required plant sex. Healthy plant sex is essential, says Debra Roberts, a master natural beekeeper based in the Appalachian Mountains in the town of Weaverville, N.C., not far from Asheville. She considers herself “a kept woman of sorts” — by her bees, that is. “I am a bee-loving hussy,” she saucily declares. She has even designed bee-loving hussy postcards.
Roberts often refers to the many “Bee Illuminati” who teach or guest lecture for the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville, a community of beekeepers where she contributes to and learns much about natural beekeeping. Since 2006, there has been a dramatic decrease in managed honeybees of approximately 33% yearly. A third of that decrease is attributed to colony collapse disorder, or CCD. That one in every three bites of food is thanks to a honeybee pollinator resonates with many across Asheville and the nation, so much so that beekeepers from Asheville as well as from Buncombe and adjoining counties are determined more than ever to help the honeybee (Apis mellifera) and her pollinator cousins through education, celebration and collaboration with the city.
What is colony collapse disorder (CCD)?
As defined by Agricultural Research Services, colony collapse disorder includes the following characteristics:
- Disappearance of most, if not all, of the adult honey bees in a colony.
- Leaving behind honey and brood but no dead bee bodies.
- Low levels of Varroa mite and other pathogens, such as Nosema, as probable contributing factors.
Statistics about U.S. beekeepers and beekeeping
- There are an estimated 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the U.S.
- The majority are considered hobbyists with less than 25 hives.
- Commercial beekeepers are defined as those with 300 hives or more.
- Most commercial beekeepers migrate their colonies to provide pollination services to farmers.
- Bee pollination is estimated at $15 billion a year in increased crop value.
- Commercial crops that are dependent on bee pollination include almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, sunflowers, cucumbers, kiwis, melons and vegetables.
Source: National Honey Board
California almond production statistics
- California has about 740,000 acres bearing almond trees.
- California produces about 80% of the world’s almonds.
- About 70% of California almonds are exported.
- Almonds are California’s largest-value agricultural export.
- Almonds are California’s largest user of pollination services.
- It is estimated that 60% of all U.S. bee colonies are used to pollinate California almonds.
- After the almond bloom, hives are moved to pollinate other crops typically two to three times during the season.
Source: Carman, H. 2011. "The Estimated Impact of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder on Almond Pollination Fees." ARE Update 14(5): 9-11.University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.
On June 26, as a result of their hard work, bee appreciators and keepers celebrated the Asheville City Council’s unanimous approval of a resolution making the city the nation’s first Bee City USA. Council members want to encourage and advance backyard beekeepers. Beekeeping is not only vital to the production of many of the foods we eat but it is also essential to the well being of the planet and individual health, Roberts says.
Debates heat up when one compares commercial versus noncommercial beekeeping. And those debates parallel the same issues when one compares agribusiness versus the merits of organic and sustainable agriculture. Roberts’ approach and experience fall squarely in the natural and no chemicals camp, so to speak.
Roberts is a storehouse of practical wisdom based on years of backyard beekeeping that’s unique to her location in the Appalachian Mountains. Bees, the environment and the human body, says Roberts, are susceptible to diseases when compromised. Roberts asserts that “any beekeeper I know worth their salt (pollen) will tell you that diseases come in when the immune systems of the bees are compromised.” Roberts says often the evidence about colony collapse disorder is in front of us but ignored: Bees are dying in large numbers; pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are overused and, in some instances, the accumulated non-lethal doses of pesticides negatively impact bees; and environmental degradation and climate change impact not only the environment but also the bees’ immune system. Yet the official research and findings can be complex, narrow and sometimes funded by corporate interests. Most often, though, the conclusion is that we just cannot make a definitive conclusion. Yet many of the beekeepers Roberts’ knows are not uncertain at all.
What’s hurting the bee population
When it comes to the commercial pollination industry, Roberts states unequivocally: “The demands of annual almond pollination in California are debilitating for the bees. After traveling long distances (and often through many states) to get to California, they join millions of fellow bees in holding yards where they are exposed to each others’ diseases, pathogens and viruses. They are fed high fructose corn syrup to trick them into thinking it is spring so the queens start laying early. The bees are then ready in greater numbers for the almond bloom around Valentine’s Day. Once they begin the pollination circuit, they have to endure months of mono-food sources, the stress of further travel and sustained exposure to more pesticides. Everything the bees collect, including diseases and pesticides, can come back home in the hive.”
Bees, like so many other species, are bellwethers. Buzzing for some recognition, buzzing to death. Yet, Roberts actively chooses to remain positive and gains sustenance from her daily beekeeping practices. “When I tend to my bees,” Roberts reflects, “when I mindfully lift a hive box, move a frame up or down, when I move gently and respectfully in and out of my hives … I am filled with hope in doing these small sacred things for these remarkable beings. It is what I choose to do as a human being to make the world a better place.” Perhaps Roberts’ actions allow some bees in the Appalachian Mountains to flutter just a bit more and have those flutters turn into ripples, and then those ripples into waves. We can only hope and act.
In her video and extended audio interview below, you can watch and hear Roberts discuss her firsthand knowledge about backyard beekeeping, how beekeeping has helped her and others and how it has the potential to heal the planet, if we just listen to the bees.
Watch a short video of Roberts in her apiary.
Listen to Roberts in this audio interview for a more detailed exploration of natural beekeeping, what the bees teach her, and the how bees have healed others.
Top photo: Master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her apiary in Weaverville, N.C. Credit: Sarah Kahn
“Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” This frightening fact is pointed out in “Bitter Seeds,” the third documentary in “The Globalization Trilogy” directed by Micha Peled. The 12-year project aims to generate debate about public policy and consumer choices in some complex issues relevant to all of us. Peled is the founder of the nonprofit Teddy Bear Films, which he created to make issue-oriented films such as “Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin?” and “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town.”
“Bitter Seeds” follows a season in a village in India from planting to harvest. There are three important stories in this film, each revolving around the multinational corporate takeover of India’s seed market and the effect it has on farmers and farming all over India and the world.
Like most of his neighbors, the protagonist in the film, Ram Krishna, must engage a money-lender to pay for the mounting costs of modern farming; he puts his land up as collateral.
The only seeds available in India now are GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which require farmers to pay an annual royalty each time they are replanted. The GMOs need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward, more insecticides and pesticides. The soil in which these seeds are planted requires more water. All of which means more and more money for the farmer to lay out.
As Krishna’s story moves forward, his cotton is attacked by mealy worms, which threaten to destroy his entire crop. His daughter has reached marrying age and Krishna must find money for her dowry.
Farmers devastated by GMO seeds
Another story weaving in and out of the film is that of a neighboring girl in college who has recently lost her father to suicide, an end claiming lives all over India’s farmlands. She wants to tell his story, along with the stories of all the other suicide victims in the area. Her research and intuition have shown her that at the root of these suicides are GMO seeds. Her family is not behind her desire to become a journalist or to expose the family story, but this young woman moves ahead, interviewing her neighbors.
In the film we also meet a seed salesman who argues that GMO seeds are better than the seeds the farmers previously used, and Vandana Shiva, an activist who speaks strongly about the damage the GMO seeds have done to the agricultural system throughout India and the world.
“Bitter Seeds,” like “Food, Inc.,” shows how much we don’t know about genetically modified seeds, their hidden costs and health effects. The GMO industry vigorously fights in the United States as well as in other countries to prevent mandatory listing of GMO foods on product ingredient labels. This should at the very least raise our concern.
The recent announcement by BASF (the world’s leading chemical company) that it is abandoning its production of GMO crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance: Europe does not like genetically modified crops.
The GMO labeling debate
Although there is a strong and organized movement pushing for labeling in the United States, why does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration think it’s OK to consider genetically modified seeds harmless until proven otherwise? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why is our health not being protected unless and until GMO seeds can be shown to be totally safe?
Earth Open Source is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global system. In June 2012, it published “GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops” by Michael Antoniou of Kings College London School of Medicine in the U.K.; Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source; and John Fagan, an early voice in the scientific debate on genetic engineering. In the report, the authors explain how genetic engineering poses special risks, claiming that GMO foods can be toxic or allergenic; how GMO feed affects the health of animals; how GMO seeds do not increase crop yield potential; how studies claiming the safety of GMO crops are generally industry-linked and therefore biased. Anyone interested in the “other side of the story” from that fed to citizens by the industry should read this report.
The number of farmers markets in this country has more than doubled in the last three years. Locavorism has become more than a buzzword, it’s an accepted way of eating. People want to know who their farmers are and how they are growing the food. Is it sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic? What seeds were used? People throughout the world are demanding that anything grown with GMO seeds at the very least be labeled. Until there is word that crops grown from GMO seeds are as good for us as their unmodified counterparts, perhaps it is best to avoid them.
Photo: Wheat seeds. Credit: mishooo / iStockphoto.com
Everyone eats. All of us go to the store and purchase groceries. And yet, how many of us understand the food production system that we rely upon? Most of the people I know have very strong opinions about food, not only about the types of food they prefer but also how that food is made and gets to them.
Many folks have a romantic notion of a family farmer getting up when the rooster crows at the crack of dawn, and starting the day with a huge breakfast — made with food from the property — before heading out to ride about on a tractor. I know family farmers who live their lives close to this idyllic notion.
On the other side of the fence are those whose scenario of the family farm is one corrupted by mega-conglomerates out to reap huge profits from unwitting consumers. I know many corporate farmers. The difference between them and their idealized colleagues is really very little.
A family farmer’s daily juggle
The family farmers I’m acquainted with indeed rise very early, often well before sun-up. But, there the romantic notion fades. These hard workers get out of the house first thing to check on the welfare of their crops and/or their animals. They often put in a few hours of farm work before breakfast, a meal followed by office work — responding to emails, purchasing supplies, checking up on sales, evaluating market prognostications and looking at weather forecasts. Then it’s back to more farming tasks, and maybe a drive into town to pick up the supplies they ordered. These farmers’ days are filled with a high degree of physical labor along with tactical decision-making, all the while keeping in mind their strategic goals — usually increasing yields and decreasing costs.
A California dairy farmer explained to me that he was currently wrestling with signing a contract locking in a specified amount for his milk for five years to come. He told me that the offer was a good one, but, he was balancing it with two other long-term contracts to purchase fertilizers and petroleum. To make these decisions he was studying the tensions in the Middle East and the effect that situation might have on future petroleum prices.
Many farmers tell me they long for days in the tractor or combine to just think. Family farmers spend their waking hours solving the inevitable crises of the moment: capturing an enterprising pig that got through fencing and chomped on a neighbors’ crops, or something more dire, like a storm on the horizon at the very moment wheat is being cut.
Growing product is just the start
In the late afternoon or evening there is usually more time spent in the office, to review the latest batch of emails, return phone calls, place orders and sell product. Some farmers, generally commodities farmers producing grain or animals in abundance, have prices locked in ahead of harvest. However, vegetable producers and those with niche markets (like high-end organic meats, or produce sold directly to restaurants) often spend a great amount of time dealing directly with their buyers. Many do not use wholesalers or even co-ops. This means creating personal relationships and maintaining them, and may require investing time in social media and going to farmers markets.
I asked a local berry producer in California to describe her average market day to me. She said she was up at 3 a.m. and out with her crew picking berries under lights. Then it was back to the warehouse where the fruit was cleaned before being packaged. She had to load up her van, drive two hours to the market, set up her booth, and be ready to sell her berries before 8:30 a.m. “Oh yeah,” she added, “and I have to make sure that I have a few hundred dollars in change because everyone arrives with $20 bills.”
Growing locally requires thinking globally
The large-scale corporate farm owner usually has hired hands to take care of daily tasks. Often the CEOs of their companies, these farmers are more tightly tied to their desks, Internet and email. Success or failure rests upon their business savvy and understanding of the global agricultural marketplace. During a meeting with one not long ago, I noticed he spent the entire time we talked going through résumés for a position that he desperately needed to fill. He didn’t consider anyone with less than six years at their previous job and looked for someone with a diverse mix of skills that included physical work and decision-making acumen. “Folks who work for me,” he said, “must have the ability to make a decision and see it through.”
Americans tend to forget that the family farmer and the large-scale corporate farmer are business people. Too often the belief is that farmers are just cogs in the machine, played like marionettes by seed, fertilizer and petroleum companies, and everyone else we refer to as “The Man.”
Farmers cannot afford to make bad decisions that jeopardize their livelihood and the success of their farms. I have never met an American farmer who did not want his farm to be sustainable. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about pollution, water quality and soil management. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about the welfare of their animals and who did not care for them deeply. Certainly there are businesses that squeeze the most out of an animal that they can, but, in my estimation they are few and far between. Most farmers I know get sentimental, and even cry, when their animals head to market.
So the next time you grab an ear of corn at the supermarket, eye the piles of freshly picked eggplants, cherries or artichokes at a farm stand or find yourself staring at the possibilities in the butcher’s case, take a moment to consider what went into getting these products to you. Back-breaking physical labor, intense business acumen and world politics are all juggled — with a prayer that the vagaries of Mother Nature won’t devastate the finely honed calculations — to bring each harvest to fruition, each animal to maturity. Whether they have corporate or family run operations, farmers put their lives and businesses on the line every day to get the best food they can on your table. Not one bite should be taken for granted.
Photo: Christopher Barden. Credit: Maureen Ladley
Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, is the author of the new release “The End of Cheap China,” which addresses, among other things, food safety and food supply issues in China.
Rein’s research shows that China is having an increasing impact on global food supply and that the Chinese taste for imported Western food is growing as is demand for a reliable and safe food system in that country.
Based in Shanghai, he writes for Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek. I spoke recently to Rein about his book chapter dedicated to food safety issues in China.
How is the consumer power of the average Chinese changing?
The book is meant to dispel a lot of myths about China’s economy. The first is that Chinese consumers are price-sensitive and cheap. I have a chapter on food safety, where I explain that they’re willing to spend money on healthy and safe food, so if you’re a producer, it’s worth selling into China. For example, Yum! Brands makes over 40 percent of its global revenue in China. So the Chinese consumer is a great consumer for Yum!, McDonald’s, Kraft and any company trying to sell finished products into the country.
It’s also a great country for the agricultural sector: sales of pork and soy are going up 300 to 400 percent a year.
How is this affecting the way the Chinese eat? How has that changed in recent years?
Meat consumption was very low. Meat consumption in China is only about 35 percent that of the United States, So, Americans eat a lot more meat, but that is changing. Chinese doubled (their average per person) meat consumption in the last 30 years. As Chinese consumers are getting wealthier, they’re eating more meats, and (the country’s wealthiest consumers) are actually willing to spend more per capita on meat than (their counterparts do) in the United States.
Are they domestically producing different kinds of foods to meet those demands?
Yeah, what you’re seeing now is massive investment on the domestic side when it comes to beef, when it comes to wine … all kinds of things. But the reality is that China’s food system has a problem: There’s not enough arable land, and the water is heavily polluted. So China is actually going to have to rely on food imports, from the United States especially, and they’re becoming a massive importer of pork, chicken feet, soybeans, pistachios, all kinds of products. These consumers trust American-produced food products more than they do stuff from China. So it’s really a boom for all different industries involved in the food sector. On the lower end and higher end.
Arable land is only 7 percent (of that available around the world), so it’s a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse going forward.
What are you noticing in terms of the impact on health in the way Chinese are changing their food consumption behaviors?
Right now, consumers are not worried that much about food when it comes to “is it healthy?” towards their overall diet. They’re eating meat, they’re eating fatty food, and they’re not overly concerned about long-term illnesses, which is why you’re seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketing.
But people are worried about being healthy from a toxicity standpoint. We interviewed 2,000 consumers in eight cities last year, and the majority said they feel that KFC, for instance, is healthy. They know it’s not healthy in the traditional sense, but people are worried about eating cooking swill oil [that is old, used oil which is filtered of solids and then re-used for cooking] on the streets, and dying right away.
What are the food safety concerns Chinese have, beyond swill oil?
We interviewed 5,000 consumers in 15 cities last year, and their biggest concern in life, ahead of being able to pay for their kid’s education or for medical costs for the family, is actually food and product safety. People are really worried. That’s why brands like Mengniu Dairy are winning, because they’re positioned as higher priced over Nestlé, they’re about 20-30 percent more (expensive), and consumers are willing to fork out the money because they think it’s going to be safe. So Dannon and Nestlé had to shut their factories in Shanghai this year, because they were competing on price and consumers didn’t want their cheap stuff anymore. Consumers find a correlation between safety and price, and feel higher price will be safe. Now I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in reality, but that’s how they equate it.
In your opinion, how are China’s consumption trends affecting the world beyond?
[They are affecting the world] in a few areas. First, China’s become the market to sell into, so a lot of brands need to think about how they’re going to sell to Chinese consumers, especially women, because women are the decision-makers when it comes to food purchases, predominantly, in families.
It’s also going to mean that there’s going to be inflation. In the last three decades, China has really been a deflationary force on the global economy. But because everyone’s getting fat, and wanting to eat more, better quality foods, you’re going to see a pricing strain on global commodity markets. So the world needs to be prepared for global inflation. American consumers better get used to higher prices at Shaw’s, or Tesco or Carrefour or Walmart, around the world.
Will the Chinese agricultural and food production systems have to change?
They absolutely will have to change. It’s an absolute mess, it’s a disaster, and an embarrassment for China to have such a poor food supply system. Though it’s being changed by two things.
The first is, the government understands it needs to do a better job of oversight. So what they’ve done is shut 50 percent of the nation’s dairies last year, for example.
The real change is going to take place by people willing to spend money when they feel that they’re safe. So brands are going to fix their supply chain and cater to these consumers and make money. The scope of the problem is enormous.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photo: Author Shaun Rein. Credit: Courtesy of Shaun Rein
Jennifer McLagan, an Australian chef living in Toronto and the 2007 James Beard Cookbook of the Year award-winner for “Fat,” has now written the enormously interesting and appealing “Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal” (Ten Speed Press). McLagan, a lover of odd bits — or as we say in my house, the best parts — is not preaching to the choir but to the multitudes that either think “yecch” when confronted with innards or are clueless when they hear “sweetbread.”
Her odd bits are not only offal, also called variety meats or innards, but all those parts of the animal that most consumers ignore, such as neck, ears, jowl and feet. At the moment only restaurant chefs seem interested in these cuts and inner parts, exemplified by books such as Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating” or restaurants such as Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal in Los Angeles.
McLagan has organized the book from front to back, literally. Chapter 1 begins with the head of the animal and successive chapters follow the contours of the body, including the middle (innards) and the tail, with a final chapter on basic recipes such as beef stock and poultry stock. Her extensive introductory notes are sensible and reassuring for offal neophytes. They’re reaffirming for readers who are offal know-it-alls too. She has perfunctory historical notes about cuts of meats and the cultural roots of the various dishes she offers as recipes. A more thorough book might have had more on that, but her goal is just to get the reader comfortable with cooking odd bits, and that she does well.
“Odd Bits” has great photographs and recipes that turn bloody guts into delectable dishes. Making tripe, brains and heart might not be standard fare, but McLagan poses a solid case for eating every part of the animal.
Good luck finding a butcher
As far as finding these odd bits, she writes: “I want to encourage you to find your own sources. I am adamant about seeking out local butchers.” All I can say is, “Good luck.” You might find pig’s feet, lamb necks or chicken livers in the supermarket, but remember that most butchers — and there are very few real butchers anymore — have to buy a 20-pound box of kidneys from their wholesalers. After they sell you one pound, they can’t unload the rest. The advice McLagan could have offered is: Look to cultures that eat odd bits; find a Chinese butcher in your nearest Chinatown.
McLagan’s recipes are appealing and challenging without being impossible for a home cook. Try the Sweetbreads With Morels and Fresh Fava Beans and see for yourself what a celebration this cookbook is. If you’re a neophyte you can’t go wrong with Beginner’s Tripe, which sounds utterly delicious and comes with the sensible advice: “If you’re still a little hesitant, serve the tripe with pasta.”
As good and as useful as McLagan’s cookbook is, she’s butting up against modern society’s aversion to eating innards. There may be a half dozen chefs promoting offal but that’s no trend.
Enlightened look at offal
McLagan is aware that today we are so far removed from the sources of our food that in our shrink-wrapped world we might not realize that meat comes from a living animal. She cares about what she eats and her approach is enlightened, sensible, non-dogmatic (thank god). Her section on our loss of food literacy, that is, understanding where our food comes from, how it is raised, how it is slaughtered, and how it is butchered, is a real gem and hits the mark. I couldn’t agree more with her comment “the idolizing of chefs has left home cooks thinking that cooking is a specialized skill.”
This is as wonderful an introduction to “odd bits” as you’ll find. McLagan is unabashed in her exploration of these meats. Whether you’re an offal aficionado, curious or adventurous, you’ll learn a lot about what to do with a pig’s head, ears and feet, veal cheeks, lamb brains, tongue, spleen, sweetbreads, heart, oxtail, testicles, blood and, of course, liver. Her section on tripe is good, but the nomenclature for tripe is far more confused than she indicates, and she doesn’t delve deeply into the uses of all four ruminant stomachs, which is important in so many of the culinary cultures whence many offal recipes emanate. Maybe she chose to omit the others because the only tripe you’ll ever find in a supermarket is honeycomb tripe, and that rarely. It’s the second stomach, and so-named because of its resemblance to a bee honeycomb, and a perfectly fine product.
I have only one last complaint — and none of my complaints detract from the book: cutesy heading titles such as “get a head,” “lend me your ears,” “if I only had a brain,” “cooking in tongues.” Ignore those and just go right for the delicious and well-chosen recipes. Once you’ve bought this book — which I recommend most highly — your next step is to find a butcher and start talking with him or her. That’s what I did.
Top photo composite: Jennifer McLagan. Credit: Rob Fiocca; “Odd Bits” book-jacket image. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
There is a growing concern about the way food is produced and brought to market under our current production systems. People have a right to expect responsible behavior from farmers when it comes to protecting animals and the environment, but in order to provide for a rapidly growing global population, that expectation must be balanced with the critical need to produce more food using fewer resources.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, countries around the globe will need to at least double the calories we produce by 2050. We will have to do this with less available land, more efficient water usage and a reduction of the overall carbon footprint of agriculture. Currently, the best means we have to feed our growing population and maintain our ecosystem are conventional high production systems.
Choosing to buy local, organic, or from a small farm, are all great options and valued choices. But it is overly simplistic to assert that a certain type of production system is inherently safer or produces healthier food than another. Safe, nutritious and affordable food is produced in a variety of ways. The advantage to the conventional system is that, acre per acre, it has less impact on the environment.
Can cage-free mean more stress for chickens?
Excessive stress in any production system will reduce productivity, which in turn will ultimately limit our ability to feed the growing population. Poultry farming provides a good example. “Shouldn’t chickens be allowed to spread their wings?” is an interesting question for discussion. Chickens establish their “pecking order” in part by exhibiting dominant behavior, like wing flapping. This serves the dominant chickens well, allowing them more access to food and water in an open environment, but it creates stress for other birds that must compete for resources. Chickens in an unconfined environment compete for food and water with the dominant birds pecking and depriving others in the population of these resources. Competition for resources is eliminated in a caged system because of the consistent and ample supply of food and water and the limited number of birds in the cage. So, from the animal welfare side, moving from a conventional cage to a cage-free system may actually increase stress on chickens.
A cage-free system also reduces productivity and requires more feed and water, increasing the pressure on natural resources. As an example, the state of California has a population of a bit less than 40 million people and consumes about 1 billion eggs annually. The current housing system requires 320 acres to produce enough eggs to supply California’s annual needs. To produce the same number of eggs in a cage-free system would require more than 30,000 acres or an area 95 percent the size of San Francisco.
Most people do not realize that the United States is one of the very few countries in the world that actually reforests its land; the majority of countries are destroying their forests to produce food. Our ability to reforest is largely because of the utilization of conventional high production food systems, which minimize the total impact on our environment.
Checking the carbon footprint
The size of agriculture’s carbon footprint is another aspect for consideration in this discussion. Recent research from Europe comparing various egg production systems has shown that the carbon footprint of the cage-free model is upward of 40 percent larger than the conventional approach. This difference is mainly because of the less efficient usage of feed and water in the cage-free scenario which, if adopted exclusively, would increase the egg industry’s carbon footprint by 33.3 percent, or the equivalent of putting 1.4 million additional cars on the road a year. In addition, energy use would rise by 15 percent, requiring an additional 1.9 million barrels of oil per year.
Food insecurity — the lack of access to basic food — traps children in a cycle of ill health and poverty. The solutions to providing adequate food at affordable prices to every segment of the population are as complex as the challenges. If we are going to meet the needs of those suffering from it, we must support continued innovation and responsible food systems that allow us to produce food through responsible conventional farming, processing and distribution. Restrictions on the U.S. food system that limit this ability will increase the cost of food, further limiting the healthy reasonably-priced food choices for all of us — and will most profoundly impact those who can least afford it. Lacking the resources to make nutritionally balanced food choices can also contribute to obesity, which has its own set of serious health and financial consequences. When it comes to feeding people and preserving the environment, the discussion has to go beyond whether a chicken should be able to spread its wings.
Scott Fleetwood is the executive director of Global Industry and Government Policy and Affairs for Novus International, Inc., where he identifies industry and policy trends, develops strategy and manages government policy initiatives and relationships. He received his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. His career spans 30 years in research and sales and marketing positions in the agricultural industry for companies including American Cyanamid, FMC, Bayer and EMD Crop BioScience. He is a board member for IFAMA (International Food and Agribusiness Management Association) and the president of the executive board for CFI (Center for Food Integrity).
Photo credit: Adrienne Todd