Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beyond Organic

Organic, confinement dairy operation. Source: The Cornucopia Institute

Organic certification is definitely a step in the right direction, but I would love to see people going "beyond organic". Did you know that organic certification still allows for animals to live inside, never seeing the light of day? And the "access" that poultry must have to the outdoors in order to be classified as organic merely means a door in a corner of a huge warehouse (a door they rarely, if ever, use). If organic farming has you envisioning a thick, lush pasture with animals running about freely in the sweet meadow air, you may be surprised.

Never mind the big business of creating organic food products (Isn't that term just great? What's in your grocery cart - food or food products?). The Cornucopia Institute has a great chart linking big businesses to the wholesome looking foods you find in your local health food store. So, if you don't think Hersheys, Coca-Cola, Nestle, or a multitude of other junk food manufacturers care a smidge about our health, you may be surprised to know that they own a lot of the products consumers are paying a premium for under the assumption that they're somehow better for you. (By the way, the Cornucopia Institute is a fabulous organization intent on promoting healthy, ecologically sustainable farming practices.)

I'm not trying to insinuate that organic certification is useless, far from it. Feeding animals an organic feed, free of chemicals, and avoiding the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and the like are all very positive farming practices, but there's more that needs to be done.

Enter small, mixed farmers looking to heal the land while raising animals outside, on pasture. Cows chew their cud, chickens scratch, pigs dig... animals being what they were intended to be.
Happy Jersey, coming in to be milked before she heads back outside for some more juicy grass.

Animals raised in confinement, on grain, are a God-send for the industrial agri-producers, but they are detrimental to the environment and to your health. I've handled beef that was from an animal raised on grain and I've handled the same meat from a beef animal raised solely on grass. I wish everybody had the chance to do the same. The differences were disturbing. The grain fed meat was sour smelling, likely due to acidosis, it was greasy with an odd texture. The grass-fed animal had meat that was of firm texture, it smelled earthy and pleasant and it lacked the greasy finish. I saw this again and again in the different carcasses I handled. Acidosis is a real problem arising from the unnatural practice of feeding grain to a ruminant.

The best way to find good, healthy meat and poultry is by getting out there and meeting farmers in your area. Check out Eat Wild to help you in your search. Frequent your local farmers market. Ask questions! Ask the farmer how he raises his animals, whether he feeds and finishes on grass or if he supplements with grain. Find out what kind of food the animals are fed in the winter. Are they kept indoors? Is their feed sprayed? What age is the animal brought to slaughter?

You may also want to educate yourself on the different breeds of beef cattle. Some 'finish' better than others on grass leaving you with a more tender, nicely marbled animal. I've had some meat from bigger beef breeds, intended for confinement/grain-fattening operations that were fed on grass. I found the meat disappointing compared to the lovely Dexter meat of my beloved Alberta farmers (and other smaller framed animals I've had the pleasure of devouring). Most farmers have sampler packs. It may be well worth it to try out a few pounds before investing in a large quantity.
Sweet, little Dexter cattle. They're so fun to watch - they're so spritely!

The point is to get to know your farmers. Visit their farms, see how they are growing and raising the food you are going to consume. Some of our most treasured relationships have developed as a result of us spending time learning about our farmer's practices, what their challenges and value systems are, and how we can support them. The only way to fix our broken food system, which encourages the production of toxic food products, is to vote with our wallets. Start with your local farmers.

Further reading:
  • A thorough, well documented report on the corporate take-over of organic milk production by Mark Alan Kastel, sponsored by the Cornucopia Institute
  • The Stockman Grass Farmer reports on the futility of cage-free, organic, omega 3 or any other silly marketing name they attach to eggs. If the chicken are not outside, eating grass, you're wasting your money.
  • Jo Robinson, of Eat Wild, weighs in on why grass is better than a "certified organic" label.

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