Imagining A Free-Range Future
Farmers and consumers are coming together, seeking sustainable agricultural practices and humane treatment of farm animals.
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By Michael Long
August 23, 2005
In 1906, when a young New Yorker named Upton Sinclair published The
Jungle, his graphic account of the stockyards of Chicago, it is said that President Theodore Roosevelt was so moved by the monstrosity of the description that he called on Congress to create the Food and Drug Administration and the first federal rules regulating meat production.
Despite the book’s socialist agenda and focus on the plight of the immigrant workers in Chicago, the public remembers The Jungle for its vivid depiction of the slaughterhouse. For those whose imaginations refuse to be ignored, fueled by the webcasts of Sinclair’s modern muckraking cousins, empathizing with animals in the stockyards often leads to vegetarianism.
For others willing to admit ethical considerations onto their plates but unable or unwilling to give up eating meat, imagination has created an idealized pastoral version of the “natural order” that includes grass-fed, free-range animals raised and slaughtered humanely. In addition to a concern for animal welfare, images of family farms, raising a small number of animals for local consumption are painted with the brush of environmentalism and concern for the safety of
the meat supply.
In her seminal 1971 treatise on the imperative of environmentally-aware vegetarianism, Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé concluded hopefully, “When we reconnect with our place in nature, we may well rediscover respectful patterns o interacting with, and even consuming, animals that have long been sources of human sustenance.”
Thirty years later, reality—or at the very least a marketer’s dream of reality—is quickly catching up to imagination. Almost very supermarket in the city is well stocked with free- free eggs. The stores stock these items because people will pay more than twice as much for guilt-free labels.
At Organic Harvest Cafe, a midtown health food restaurant, chef and owner Mark Mager serves up free-range, organic chicken alongside a largely vegan menu. Mager comments, “Organic farmers are saving the planet, saving the Universe, without using any chemicals and pesticides in their farming. Of course it is harder work, but I am all about supporting organic farmers, both nationally and locally. The neighborhood is with me; I can’t buy the free-range, organic chicken fast enough to keep it in stock.”
We deconstruct the three main forces behind the free-range and cage-free movement (environmentalism, food safety and animal rights), examining what’s gone wrong with factory farming, what alternatives are being offered, and where the movement is going.
The Sierra Club reports that factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) in technical parlance, produce 2.7 trillion pounds of animal waste per year. According to the group, farming byproducts dumped into the Mississippi River have produced a dead zone (where no fish can survive) in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. Globally, livestock production has resulted in widespread destruction of forests and the release of enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. The Sierra Club has called for a moratorium on new factory farms and for much stricter environmental restrictions to be enforced on existing farms.
While the factory farms continue to pollute, a growing contingent of environmentally conscious farmers has spearheaded a sustainable agriculture movement in the United States focused on developing a new model for food production that seeks to maintain the health of the ecosystem while also maintaining living wages for small farmers.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, funded by the US Department of Agricultture, provides a framework for the movement, “Sustainable agriculture is one that produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining.”
Animals are not crowded into feeding pens under this model. Instead, they are fed mainly on pasture land, which is rotated often so that the land does not become overgrazed, which leads to soil erosion.
You may have also heard of Biodynamic farming, in which growers seek to create a sustainable ecosystem on their farm. Biodynamic labeling is certified internationally by the Demeter Association, which requires among a long list of eco-friendly farming practices, that 80% of any livestock feed be grown on the farm.
One of the best ways to support sustainable agriculture is to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. Bernie DeLeo, director of Morningside Heights’ Chubby Bunny CSA, commented on the importance of getting involved locally, “It has to be more of a grassroots effort. Just buying organic food shipped across the country isn’t good enough. It has to be local.”
A CSA member for four years, Ms. DeLeo has observed a change in the type of people joining CSAs. “I’ve seen the different types of people who are interested in this shifting. It used to be the ‘granola head’ for lack of a better term, but now it’s all kinds of city people.”
However, Ms. DeLeo, a nutritional counselor, commented that the CSA movement faces challenges of a different kind, “It’s no longer a lack of awareness holding people back from joining CSAs. It’s that it doesn’t fit into their lifestyles; cooking is not even an option for so many New Yorkers. They wouldn’t know what to do with a week’s worth of produce.”
You don’t have to join a CSA to find sustainable food sources. Research farmers supplying produce at your local farmers market and only buy as much food from them as you are going to eat.
Interest in cage-free eggs offers an excellent example of the issues driving the free-range movement overall. The issue receives increased attention as many vegetarians concerned with animal welfare continue to eat eggs, but are looking for purchasing options that reflect their concern for animal welfare.
According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), 98 percent of the
70 billion eggs produced in the United States every year come from chickens locked in battery cages, prevented from even stretching their wings. The HSUS has launched a “No Battery Eggs” campaign to encourage retailers to phase out eggs obtained from chickens held in battery cages. Locally, the Natural Gourmet Cookery School has pledged never to use eggs obtained from caged chickens.
In a promising turn, Wild Oats, the third largest natural food chain in the country with 75 stores, announced recently that as of June 1st of this year they are no longer selling eggs from caged chickens, becoming the first national chain to make such an announcement. Commenting on their decision in a statement announcing the move, Wild Oats CEO Perry Odak noted, “Demand for improving the welfare of farm animals has never been higher.”
Not to be outdone, Whole Foods contacted the Humane Society to let them know that they had been selling only cage-free hens since June 2004 and since January 2005 had used no caged-hen eggs in their baked goods and prepared foods.
But animal rights activists in the vegetarian and vegan community are not impressed. PETA advertises on Google Adwords when terms such as free-range are searched. On egg production, they write, “U.S. regulations regarding free-range products apply only to chickens raised for meat, not to those raised for eggs. Regardless of what the egg cartons may say, most hens raised for their eggs are subjected to cramped, filthy conditions until heir egg production begins to wane—at about two years of age—then they are slaughtered.”
Jesse Laflamme, a farmer whose family has been raising egg-laying hens in New Hampshire for three generations, has a different perspective, “I feel good about what we are doing for the hens while they are here. They live a good life compared to caged hens. I wish that every American could see a picture of hens in battery cages, and then compare that to what we are doing.”
Jesse’s eggs, available at Fairway markets and other locations in New York City as
Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs, are “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” by the HSUS and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
To qualify for the label, which twenty-six companies are allowed to use after passing an annual inspection, animals must not be treated with antibiotics, be fed a nutritious diet and be given sufficient space to “support natural behavior.”
This means that egg-laying hens cannot be forced to molt through starvation techniques used in many factory farms, cutting down on the number of eggs that a given hen can lay. They also must have a place to scratch, take dust-baths and a private roosting space to lay eggs.
Putting some perspective on the magnitude of the difference between the cage-free, Certified Humane practices at his farm and those at a factory farm, Jesse noted that their largest barn holds 18,000 hens, but that by converting the space to battery cages they could easily fit between 150,000 and 200,000 hens. Their entire operation produces three million dozen eggs a year, an amount that some commodity producers distribute in a week.
To be fair, Pete & Gerry’s hens are fed a special diet and kept in artificial lighting that simulates a perpetual summer to stimulate egg laying and are killed after one to two years. Jesse’s hens are taken to auctions in New York City, where they are purchased live by mostly immigrant shoppers who prefer to slaughter the chickens themselves.
Labeling Failure Needs to be Addressed
Despite the growth of the cage-free movement, the USDA does not regulate the “cage-free” label. “Free-range” or “Free-roaming” requires only that, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The free range label does not apply to beef and pork products. A number of advocacy groups have complained that the free range label is not specific enough to give consumers a realistic picture of how the animals are raised.
The lack of specific federal guidance on what the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service calls “Animal Production Claims” such as “free range” or “vegetarian fed” has led to a growth of third party labels such as the USHS “Certified Humane” or the “Free Farmed” label certified by the American Humane Association. However, these labels are carried by an extremely small number of producers compared to the total volume of animal products distributed in the country.
More troubling is the risk that third party labels will give comfort to the consumer and none to the animals; last year the Better Business Bureau called on the United Egg Producers, the egg industry’s trade group, to stop advertising their “Animal
Care Certified” eggs as humane based on continued use of forced molting, beak clipping and battery cages. Although the BBB has referred the case to the Federal
Trade Commission for false advertising in 2004, the Commission has yet to make a decision.
Food Safety and Quality
American consumers have got mad cow on the brain. This summer, the first cow born in the United States tested positive for Mad Cow Disease, known as Bovine Spongiform Encelopathy, or BSE for short. Since a Canadian-born cow in Washington State tested positive for the disease in 2004, the USDA has increased testing from 20,000 cows a year to 400,000 cows a year. People are worried about the safety of their beef cows. When they found out that factory farms routinely fed ground-up cattle to their herds until
1997, they became more worried.
On top of BSE, consumers have become aware of the potential negative health effects of Bovine Growth Hormone and widespread antibiotic use in chickens and other farm animals to promote faster growth, which may lead to antibiotic resistance.
While there is no guarantee that grass-fed and organic beef will not have BSE, they will be guaranteed growth hormone and antibiotic-free. And, of course, consumers can reduce their consumption of pesticides by going organic.
Moving beyond organic, grass-fed beef cattle are not confined in feed lots at the end of their lives, but continue to be fed on pasture until they are slaughtered. According to the Catttlemen’s Beef Board, Grass-finished beef, on average, can contain as much as double the amount of health-promoting conjugated linoleic acid (CLAs), with Omega 6:3 ratios similar to those found in fish. Grass-fed beef also has less fat on average than cattle from feed lots, although the Beef Board would counter that there are lean cuts of meat available from cattle finished in feed lots.
Consumers looking for healthier meats are increasingly able to find grass-fed buffalo and other game meats, which have lower levels of fat than beef cattle and even skinless chicken breasts.
What’s a shopper to do?
Whether you are concerned about the environment, animal rights, or the quality of your food, and you have a fair amount of disposable income, you may have already started buying organic, grass-fed or free-range meat and poultry as well as cage-free eggs.
If you care enough to spend the money, you might as well do some research on the farms you are buying from. Go online, see if you can find any dirt about
the company, call the owner and possibly even schedule a trip out to the farm. A personal relationship with the farmer will go a long way to settling any concerns that marketers are fooling you out of your hard-earned dollars for minimal benefits to the animals and society.
If you don’t have the time, look for a third-party certification from a group that you trust or rely on a CSA organizer to do the footwork for you while you pick up your weekly shares.
If you are interested in advocacy, write your politicians and government agencies, calling for changes in labeling laws that more accurately reflect the care some farmers are taking to raise their farm animals as humanely as possible. While the movement is still small, interest in a sustainable agricultural future is growing and is driving real change in the industry.
Keep dreaming, and pass the buffalo