Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Industrial Revolution Revolutionizes Agriculture. Is that a good thing???

A factory farm, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost”. Factory farming came about as an extension of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, as it’s name implies, revolutionized industry by not only introducing machinery to do jobs that had been done by hand; but also through the study of efficiency. So along with wonderful and time/energy (and therefore) cost saving inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Singer’s sewing machine, there were also progressive thinkers like Adam Smith promoting ideas like “division of labor” and the “invisible hand” (a rather obscure analogy for a pretty basic idea that as one pursues his own gain, he in turn –inadvertently or not- promotes the greater good of society; or in other words, a business that is interested in being profitable, in turn provides a needed product, thereby improving the good of all – which is all well and good and except for a little thing that economists like to call, negative externalities. More on that at a later date.).

These inventions and ideas were highly successful in revolutionizing and improving production. Mass production of items became possible and this brought about a number of positive changes. I’ll continue on my theme of cotton and the sewing machine…. suddenly fabric and clothing became much more affordable, much more available, and much LESS troublesome to the housewife who could buy clothing that was ready made as opposed to having to make it herself. Fabulous! Life changing! Truly revolutionary! With machines capable of mass production, and by dividing and specializing labor; people no longer needed to be self-sufficient. Instead of spending all of their time and energy doing EVERYTHING that was needed to run a household, they were able to specialize in an area of trade and buy or barter for the other things that were needed.

Fast-forward about a hundred years and someone had the bright idea to apply these same principles to agriculture. The factory farm was born. Seems very logical (and in many ways it is); if it worked in transforming the production of textiles and clothing why not corn and bacon? Instead of thousands of little farms that each grew corn, beans, cotton, and cabbage (for instance) and raised 20 or 30 pigs, a hundred head of cattle (some for milking, some for eating), and chickens (again some for laying eggs and some for eating); there should be fewer farms that SPECIALIZE. These farms would just raise pigs, or cows, or chickens, or just plant corn, or wheat, or cabbage. Sounds reasonable, right? Specialization means that each farm would be an expert in the individual product that it raised, the production could be made more efficient, more concise, more economical. It would increase the profit for the farm, and by seeking to improve it’s own profit, these farms would bring greater good to everyone else – more affordable, more accessible, just plain MORE meat for everyone to enjoy. That’s good, right?

Here’s the problem: cows and pigs aren’t textiles, chickens and corn aren’t shirts, water and soil aren’t conveyer belts or cogs in a piece of machinery. Plants and animals are (albeit in much different ways) living things, not inanimate objects. Plants and animals require healthy soil and healthy water and clean air and sunshine to really thrive and grow. Specialized farms lead to a massive depletion of natural resources and an over abundance of specific wastes. There is a natural balance in nature that must be respected regardless of how “inefficient” it may seem. And by ignoring that balance and seeking efficiency at all costs we are beginning to pay the very high price of factory farming.

I could spend a lot of time painting for you (with words of course…. I’m not exactly an artist with paint and brush!) a very ugly picture of factory farming (and I pretty much will over the next few weeks), but for now, let me take a moment to paint a picture of a farm that is in step with the balance of nature as God intended it to work.

It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg…. I’m not sure which comes first because it’s more of a cycle (made up of other cycles) than a straight line, but I’ll start with the ground water and work my way up. Deep below the surface of the earth is a water source that is pure and clean, this water source feeds springs, wells, streams, providing one of the essentials for life - plant, animal, and human. (And then, of course, we all remember the cycle of water as it is evaporated from the surface of the earth to the atmosphere where it forms clouds and produces precipitation, which in turn falls to the earth, renews the soil, is filtered through the ground and returned to the water table.)

Healthy soil is the next layer and it’s cycle looks something this: providing a “home” and nutrients for plants, these plants in turn provide nutrients to animals which then “deposit” nutrients back into the earth, plants also re-deposit nutrients back into the soil. A healthy soil needs a variety of plants and animals all of which take and then deposit different nutrients. Healthy soil also requires plants to help prevent erosion of the topsoil by wind and water.

Plants come next. They feed on nutrients from soil to help them grow; in return, they release nutrients back into the soil, usually when the plants die and decay or after harvest when the remainder of the unused plant is tilled back into the soil. A variety of plants creates a healthier soil, which in turn creates healthier plants. Cattle and other livestock eat the plants and in turn deposit nutrients back into the soil, which in turn provides nutrients to the plants (see the whole cycle pattern repeating itself here?).

Then comes the animals, which thrive on clean water and healthy plants. And as before mentioned, they also contribute to a healthy cycle of receiving and returning nutrients from and to the ground. Again, for a healthy cycle to exist, the number of animals must be limited and varied. One species will deplete the same nutrients and over-saturate with an abundance of the same waste (which then takes a “deposit” of nutrients from a beneficial amount to an amount that becomes basically toxic).

So, when all of these cycles work together (along with earthworms, insects, birds, bees, and about a gazillion other smaller cycles), there is a natural rhythm of fertilization, pest control, nutrition, and – well – LIFE! And when you go mucking around with these cycles and try to remove them and SPECIALIZE them and put them into their own separate little corners, you screw up the whole process. (Oh, and by the way... just ask the pigs from the farm pictured above how they special they feel!) I’m not a scientist and I don’t pretend to be one. But I don’t think you have to be one to look at the world and begin to see how things make sense and how they don’t make sense. It only makes sense that if you remove a part of the cycle, you are removing a cog from the machinery… things will fall apart. And they certainly have.

I think we are only beginning to understand the problems that we created for ourselves with the implementation of factory farming. And we are running around trying to come up with ways to FIX these problems that WE created. And every time we FIX one of these problems, we CREATE another problem, which then has to be FIXED. Instead of fixing, we need to go about RESTORING. Restoring the disrupted cycles, restoring our earth, restoring dignity to the animals that we use for food, restoring the integrity of our food and our methods of production. Restoring health to our water, our earth, and to ourselves.

In the next few weeks, I will go into more specifics about the problems that we have created and the ways that we are trying to fix those problems, and how we are really just creating more problems to be fixed at a later date! J And if that’s not confusing enough, I’ll also explore ways we can begin (little by little) to bring about restoration. I use the word, we, because “we” truly are responsible, all of us. Whether we are consumers, producers, or bystanders; this is our world and WE (all of we) are responsible for it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Caring for Earth and Animals: A Biblical Perspective

The book of Genesis provides a description of the creation of the universe. God began by creating the earth; creating light; separating land from sea and darkness from light; he created the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies; he created the vegetation that covered the earth. Then God turned his attention to the creatures of the earth and mankind, as described below.
24 And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
29 Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so.
31a God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Genesis 1: 24-31

To summarize, God created all living creatures with the breath of life and he gave them every green plant for food. He also gave mankind its first mandate: “Be Fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over living creature that moves on the ground.” You will notice, however, that it was not God’s intention that man should use his creatures for food. In the perfect world that was Eden, man and beast alike were given “every green plant for food”.

I have heard people use this very scripture to justify mistreatment of this planet and the animals that call it home. “Mankind should subdue the earth, it is ours to use, we are the supreme beings on the planet, it was created for our use!” These views distort the words of this scripture to give credence to an attitude that is not in line with the character of God.
The Message translation puts it this way (italisis added for emphasis):
God spoke: "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth."
God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God's nature.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
"Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth."
Genesis 1: 26-28

Other translations use words like “reign”, “rule”, and “govern” to describe Mankind’s relation to the rest of creation. In short, God did make mankind superior to the rest of creation, however, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”(Luke 12:48) With mankind’s superiority to other creatures, comes increased responsibility for those creatures and the earth that we share. The beasts of the field were not given the same level of intelligence and powers of reasoning that humans possess, as such, it is our responsibility to see that they are cared for, protected, and provided for. It is not a matter of animal rights, it is a matter of human responsibility!

There are those who would like for us to believe that we are hardly different from apes and that humans are just one more animal among all the animals of the earth. This is a lie, in fact, a dangerous lie. It is a lie that absolves mankind of its God given responsibility toward the rest of His creation. If we are no different (read, no better) than the apes, then we can be not be held any more responsible for the earth and its inhabitants than the apes. Would you hold the ape responsible for caring for the environment? Or protecting endangered species? It is precisely because we are created in God’s image and because we were given a specific mandate to be good stewards that we should be responsible to and toward our fellow beings.

Respecting animals does not diminish the status of mankind, it elevates it. God’s word is full of examples of how much God values His creation. The Bible says that a sparrow does not fall of which God is not mindful. Think about that for a second. A sparrow. One of the most plentiful birds on the planet. A small, unremarkable bird. Yet, not one sparrow dies without God noticing it. If God cares that much about each of His creatures, shouldn’t those of us created in His image, created to be like Him, be just as concerned? It’s one of our “jobs” as people. And if God cares that much about a sparrow, how much more do you think He cares about people (His creation that is most reflective of Himself).

God’s first choice was that people and animals live off the earth’s vegetation. The food chain, as we know it, was not part of God’s original plan. I think this speaks volumes about the character of God and the love he has for all his creation. He looked down on a world where bloodshed was a not a necessary function of life and he was pleased. It was only after sin entered the world that the shedding of blood became necessary. The Bible does not clearly state how this transition occurred, but it is clear that at some point, even the animals began to behave differently. And, in fact, it was not until after the flood that God gave mankind permission to use animals as a food source.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons and told them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. All the animals of the earth, all the birds of the sky, all the small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the fish in the sea will look on you with fear and terror. I have placed them in your power. I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables.
Genesis 9: 1-3

Now that I have laid out the reason for it, here is my opinion. I have a really hard time believing that God could possibly look down and be pleased with our current practices of “raising” meat. The God who notices the passing of a sparrow must also see the unnecessary suffering of countless farm animals. The God who created life cannot be pleased with standard industry practices of sending all male chicks (half of all chickens hatched) down a conveyer belt to into a chipper where they meet a horrible death. If it turns MY stomach and I am created in HIS likeness, I can only imagine how He must feel about it.

And before it is brought to my attention, I fully acknowledge that there are greater atrocities in the world. Abortion is horrible, genocide is horrible, massive famine is horrible, child abuse is horrible, starvation is horrible, homelessness is horrible. All of these things (and countless more) are wrong and bring grief to our Creator. However, this is my calling, this is my passion, this is where my heart is, this is what I am equipped to do.

I also believe that elevating the value of life for farm animals (all animals), in turn, elevates the value of human life! If we can learn to have compassion for pigs and cows and chickens and turkeys, if we can begin to understand that EACH of God’s creatures has value, if we can teach our children to respect and honor and cherish the lives of animals; how much more will we (as a society) cherish, honor, respect, value, uphold the lives of our fellow human beings. When we degrade the value of these animals that we raise for food, when we treat them like objects instead of living, breathing, sentient beings; we are, in effect, devaluing all life and the Creator that grants it.

Additionally, I believe (and have seen some pretty strong scientific evidence that supports that belief) that our current use of factory farming methods has seriously adverse effects for human life as well. I guess it comes back to that whole reaping what you sow thing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Animals Were Harmed in the Making of Chocolate? Talk about a moral dilemma!

Today completes the first week of my new “put my money where my mouth is” lifestyle change. Some things went quite as I expected, but I also encountered a few oops-hadn’t-really-thought-that-one-through moments.

You see, ideally, I do not want to support the mainstream dairy industry, because said industry engages in a number of practices that I find especially disturbing. For instance, in order for cows to continuously lactate, they must be pregnant on a fairly regular basis. Because of this, calves are often an unwanted byproduct of the dairy industry. Like most byproducts, these calves are often disposed of; in some pretty horrible ways, no less. Now, to be clear, I’m not accusing every dairy in the industry to partake in this practice, but it is common enough to be cause for concern. Not to mention, the accepted practice within the industry of using growth hormones and antibiotics. Anyway, suffice it to say for the moment that “regular” dairy products are on my “try not to buy” list. No big deal, my plan was to buy organic from the supermarket until I can find a local supplier of milk and cheese. See, it’s all about making incremental changes, choosing good options when better or best are not available.
But here is the REAL kicker… oddly enough - milk chocolate is made with milk!!!!!!!! What??? I didn’t think about that one when I decided to go get all principled about my food….no chocolate? I’m still working on this one. I have a plan to begin a letter writing campaign to chocolate manufacturers urging them to put pressure on the dairy industry to clean up their act! ☺ I figure I’ll wait until the next time I’m suffering from PMS and denying myself chocolate, that way I can come up with a letter that they might take seriously!

I’m not entirely certain that I can give up chocolate cold turkey, but it did make me think….. have you ever stopped to consider that animals could very well have been harmed in the process of making something so perfectly harmless as a chocolate bar? That low-wage workers could have been exposed to health risks (from toxic fumes often found in high concentrations within the confines of industrialized farming operations) while going about their daily jobs at a dairy to produce a key ingredient of your favorite chocolaty morsel?

I don’t bring these things up to make you feel guilty about eating chocolate, but to make an important point. It’s all a part of that whole “Facing Your Food” thing (hey, that would make a great name for a blog!) Choices we make every single day matter. Whether we agree with these practices or not, our consumer dollars are going to support them. So, we have a responsibility to hold manufacturers responsible for the choices that they are making. To realize that the production of something as benign as a piece of chocolate could be having a negative impact on our environment, our health, and animal welfare is a pretty profound realization.

But, back to other things. It was a little surprising to me that I spent less on groceries and food this week then I generally do. Even though I did spend more on organic dairy products, I did not purchase any meat and ate out much less. I did not eat any meat for five days and didn’t miss it once…. (Well, ok… there was that one time when everyone ordered breakfast at work and I REALLY wanted some bacon). I enjoyed my veggie sub from Subway® and vegetable lo mein from the Chinese restaurant. At home, I ate a lot of vegetables, black beans, rice, sweet potatoes… generally found myself making healthier choices since I wasn’t filling up on large portions of meat at every meal. Yesterday, I cooked with ground deer meat (good thing about living in rural Georgia is that I know plenty of people who hunt).

Next week, I plan to get a package of humanely raised chicken, at $9/lb, it doesn’t come cheap, but using it sparingly and filling up on low cost items like rice, beans, and seasonal vegetables… it can be squeezed into even a tight budget. I plan to make some chicken stock and freeze it in ice cubes for use in cooking as needed. When paying a premium price for a quality product, it's important to get the most use out of as possible. I've been using this particular brand of chicken for a while now (can't remember the name at the moment, but will try to post that information later), but was surprised the first time I cooked it by how much more flavorful it was than the chicken I had become accustomed to from the grocery store (can you say tasteless?). The chicken breasts are also much smaller than the Dolly Parton birds you are likely to find in most of the poultry section. But the most disturbing difference that I noticed immediately was how GOOD it smelled when I simply boiled it; in contrast to that strange chemical smell that "regular" chicken from the grocery store always seems to emit. All of these differences are part of why it's so important to me to change my own eating habits and to share this information with others. To quote a report of the PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production: "Food animals that are treated well and provided with at least minimum accommodation of their natural behaviors and physical needs are healthier and safer for human consumption." (I would urge you to read this report in full, it is not terribly long and easy to skim for the highlights. http://www.ncifap.org/reports/)

Here is my "recipe" (I use this term loosely as things like using measuring devices or making something the same way twice seem to be concepts that elude me) for the Meatless Tacos pictured above.
Heat 2 cans of black beans (minus the liquid) in a pan with sauteed garlic (or onion if you prefer) and diced fresh jalepenos, season with chili and cumin powder to taste. Once bubbling, turn down and cook over low heat for about 20 mins. Serve in taco shells, flour tortillas, or take corn tortillas and pass them through a hot oil bath, turning once (tortillas should be pliable, but almost crisp). I top them with chopped avacado, tomato, jalepeno, chopped fresh cilantro (a must!!!), olives, and a dollup of sour cream.

More to come on that letter writing campaign at a later date....

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Journey Begins

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step… or so the saying goes. So, here I am teetering on the verge of my fist step of what I can only assume will be a long, complicated, trying, and (hopefully!) rewarding journey. There is another saying that seems rather apropos as well, put your money where your mouth is!

For the last few years, as I have learned more and more about the factory farming method that is currently the primary way of producing meat and dairy products, I have become increasingly concerned and appalled by the practices that my own consumer dollars are supporting. While I have been doing a lot of talking about the need for change and a move toward a more sustainable method of food production, talk is cheap! Now is the time for action.

My purpose for this blog is to document my findings and experiences as I attempt to put my money where my mouth is… literally! ☺ I have complained about the problems and dangers of factory farming for long enough, and now I’m going to put up or shut up! And I’m inviting you to keep me honest by holding me accountable. I welcome your questions, comments, disagreements, and (hopefully) support! I’m hoping the blog can help stimulate a conversation about our food and ways to make it better. Experts agree that our current system is not sustainable long-term, so now is the time to begin to make changes to keep meat a part of our diet, keep it affordable, and produce it responsibly.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, or even answers at all, really. What I do have is a lot of available information, research skills, and the desire to learn and share as much about this important topic as I’m able. So, I hope you will consider being a part of my journey… trips are so much more fun with company!

In the next few weeks, I will go into some of the reasons why this is so important to me and what I plan to do on this journey. I also want to share information about how factory farming is a drain on our society and adversely affects our economy, environment, healthcare, and animal welfare. Coming up…. Factory Farming Defined, Alternatives Explored and The Bottom Line – The High Cost of “Cheap” Meat.