The Modernization of Chains of Food Production

After not posting on here for over a year, I am back! This is an older post that I just finished up, but within the next couple weeks I hope to post something new related to my amazing experience studying abroad in Ecuador. For now, please enjoy the following thoughts on different chains of food production/processing/distribution:

The ways food gets to us today are extremely different from the ways it did 100 years ago. We all have a general idea that the way food is grown and distributed has modernized in many ways; many farmers now manage pests and soil health with complex chemical products derived from bacteria or petroleum or other substances, and apply these products with intricate machinery, etc. I often tend to think of how on-farm practices have changed rather than considering the actual structural changes in the chain of producers and processors that bring food to our plate. This latter topic often goes unconsidered. I think it is interesting and insightful to examine the modern food system with a perspective focused on the actual structure of the food chain (i.e. the relationships between different players in the food chain). This perspective also helps to understand the origin of the modern local food movement.

Knowing this, I decided to write a paper for my geography class on the modernization of the food chain (rather than of on-farm practices) and the development of alternative food chains (i.e. the food chains which produce “local” food). As it was a geography class and not an environmental studies class, I chose to focus on the effects these different food chains have on rural communities rather than the environment. While this is a different subject matter and approach than my usual one, I still think it is an important and fascinating topic. And much of the paper examines more general and widely applicable trends in agriculture which I think are important to be aware of as a consumer.

The paper begins with an extremely simplified history of the modernization of the food chain and producers’ and consumers’ reactions to this food chain which together helped create alternative food chains. I attempt to explain briefly the major cause of the current economic hardship faced by many farmers, which I feel is something often talked about but not understood on a deeper level. After that I get to the focus of the essay, the effects of all these things on rural communities. If any of this sounds interesting to you, keep reading! Toward the end, I try to provide a somewhat new perspective on the local food movement. If you are interested but not feeling up for reading all of it, I think the first five or six short paragraphs are a good general overview. I also added some pictures in an attempt to break up the text and make it more manageable. (Be prepared for formal academic writing, apologies for that. But the ideas are still pretty cool, I promise.) Here’s the essay:

Activists, young people, and scientists alike are increasingly interested in food and agriculture and studying its environmental and social impacts. However, much of this increased interest has been focused on either on-farm practices or a very simplified view of the entire food production-consumption chain. In an attempt to study the entire food chain more deeply and with a different perspective, I aim to investigate the changes in the structure and relationships of this food chain over time. More importantly, I make it my goal to identify the effects of these food chain changes on rural spaces, communities, and economies.

In my research I have found that the modernization of the food chain has caused farm consolidation and subsequent decreases in rural population. Additionally, this modernization can cause more specific and nuanced economic harm and political divisions among rural communities. Finally, the recent movement against the modernized food chain and towards alternative, relocalized food chains has had positive but complex economic effects on rural communities, increasing farmers’ incomes but also causing more nuanced disturbances in these communities.

In order to understand these wider effects of food chain modernization on rural areas, it is important to have a thorough idea of what this modernization entails. To briefly summarize this very complex process, the food supply chain has become more “industrial, capitalist, concentrated, and globally integrated” over the last hundred years, and especially since the post-World War II period of economic prosperity (Hinrichs, 2003: 34). This means that in addition to the industrialization of on-farm practices which is often spoken about, the chain from food production to consumption has spread out geographically and economically. The scale at which food is distributed has increased greatly from that of the household or locality to that of the region, nation, and globe.

Instead of a family growing, processing, and eating its own food, these processes have been “delink[ed]” so that the food chain from production to consumption now comprises many more “economic components”: separate industries devoted to producing farm inputs and services as well as those engaged in the processing, packaging, transporting, wholesaling, and retailing of farm products (Hinrichs, 2003: 34; Polopolus, 1982: 803). An example of this trend can be seen in a 1922 issue of the Pacific Rural Press newspaper, which reported on a new business developed to bring refrigeration to rail cars: “The Western Pacific Railroad is to have its own refrigerator car service in 1923. A separate company has been formed to handle this business known as the Western Refrigerator Line.” (Pacific Rural Press, 1922). Here we can begin to see the changes in food chain structure that is a large part of its modernization.

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Found in this 2011 FDA report, the above picture gives an idea of the different possible “global supply chains” that canned tuna may take to get to a consumer in the U.S. This representation seems to leave out the actual production of the tuna and the sourcing of various materials necessary for its farming or capture in the wild, which would no doubt add many more paths. We certainly do not think about this complex, global chain or the sheer distance traveled when we sit down to eat a can of tuna.

Within this modernized and “highly interdependent subsystem” of food production and distribution, the corporations which make up the non-production components of the food chain (i.e. everyone but the farmer) have slowly increased their economic influence and share of the food chain (Polopolus, 1983: 803). In 1982, these non-farm components (which hardly existed 150 years earlier) were roughly twice as economically important as the farm itself, based on metrics such as employment and value added (Polopolus, 1983: 803). This increasing economic influence of non-production food chain components has resulted in what Cochrane and others term the “cost-price squeeze” for farmers, in which rising input costs and falling food prices during the 1950s and 1960s put economic pressure on the farmer from both sides (Cochrane, 1979: 386).

Increasing output to attempt to survive this squeeze became more difficult toward the end of the 20th century because of market saturation and “growing opposition to the ‘dumping’ of surpluses on world markets” (Banks et al., 2003: 397). Putting all these factors together, the increasing economic influence of the non-production components of the food chain and subsequent cost-price squeeze caused by the modernization of the food chain have made it significantly more difficult for conventional farmers to sustain their livelihoods on farming alone. This economic harm to farmers can be seen quantitatively in the decreasing share of food prices which are actually paid to the farmer. For example, in 1973 farmers received 44 cents of each dollar spent on food, whereas in 2008, they received only 16 cents of each food dollar (Polopolus, 1982: 804; Canning, 2001: 6).

The increasing economic hardship faced by farmers and caused by modernization of the food chain has had varied direct and indirect effects on rural spaces over time. Most simply, this hardship leads to farm consolidation, in which farmers who can not survive the cost-price squeeze are forced to stop farming and move out, selling land to their neighbor who then increases in size and production. In Iowa for example, there were approximately 65,000 hog farmers in 1980 but only 10,000 in 2002, and the average number of hogs per farm increased from 200 to 1,400 over the same period of time (Babcock et al., 2003). See the graphs below for a visual illustration of these trends.


As an example of consolidation within the food industry, the number of Iowa pig farms shows a very clear downward trend over the 25 years from 1982 to 2007.


Here, an opposite trend is obvious. While the number of farms has decreased as in the above graph, the production level/size of each of those farms has greatly increased. Together these two trends illustrate very clearly the idea of farm consolidation as described in the above paragraphs: fewer and fewer farms are producing more and more. Both graphs are from this  2012 Food and Water Watch report on food monopolies.

This farm consolidation then leads to a decrease in the percentage of rural population employed in agriculture, and a subsequent decrease in the overall rural population. Though many individual rural counties have experienced out-migration over the past several decades, 2010 marked the first year of net decrease in rural population nationwide (USDA ERS, 2012). As many scholars propose, farm consolidation and the cost-price squeeze caused by the modernization of the food chain play a part in this trend. Along with these broader national and international trends of farm consolidation and decrease in rural population, it is possible to examine the more specific effects of food chain modernization on the smaller scale of a single state.

Another trend beginning in Iowa in the early 1980s helps to illustrate one specific on-the-ground effect of the modernization of the food chain on rural spaces and people. In Iowa, which has long relied economically on pork production, pigs are increasingly raised by contract growers. In these arrangements, contracting firms supply the farmer with young pigs and inputs such as feed, pay the farmer for fattening the pigs, and then market the full-grown pigs. As a result, the farmer has clearly lost autonomy in that he does not own his animals and his production methods are “carefully specified and monitored” (Page, 1996: 390). In these relationships, “nominally independent growers are brought under the control of agro-industrial firms that orchestrate relationships within the commodity chain” (Page, 1996: 390). Along with this loss of autonomy, contract production has harmed the “strong collective identity” of farmers by dividing members of farm organizations who differ in their opinion of contract farming (Page, 1996: 391).

This “agricultural restructuring” caused by contracting firms also occurs at other parts in the food chain, for example companies who produce animal feed, land grant universities, and extension services (Page, 1996: 392). Contracting firms attempt to bring in their own researchers, beginning to take over the role of researchers from universities. Additionally, contracting firms have integrated some feed companies to produce for them, but only companies who are structurally centralized enough to be compatible with the structure of these firms. This harms the business of more localized feed companies. In summary, this trend of contract farming (which is no doubt part of the larger trend of increasing economic influence of the non-production components of a modernizing food chain) stands to harm rural economies and divide rural communities politically.

In the last 50 years or so, alternatives to this conventional modernized food chain have begun to spread. Though on-farm practices between the producers involved in conventional and alternative food chains are highly different, here I focus on the fact that alternative food chains are structurally different, shorter, and more localized than the older conventional ones. They involve fewer economic components and are often stripped down to the simplest of chains which involve only manufacturers of farm inputs, a producer, and a consumer.

Before addressing the effects of new alternative food chains on rural spaces and communities, it is essential to link their development to the modernized food chain and identify their development as a direct reaction to the modernization of the food chain. This vital reactionary element of alternative food chains can be identified in the so-called local food movement, which is framed as the opposite and counter-movement to the globalization of food chains. Consumers’ demand for local food is thus an ideological rejection of the distance between producer and consumer inherent in a global food chain. As the authors of a 2003 study in the Journal of Rural Studies asserted, these shortened alternative food chains seek to “challenge the time space distantiation that characterizes the continuing development of the dominant agrifood system” (Allen et al., 2003: 73).

Additionally, globalized food chain components are often managed by offices that are far away from the region in which the company’s products are sold and therefore the management cannot respond to the specific consumer preferences of a given locality. The “disassociation between these traditional large firms and the local consumer base” has allowed space for more localized food companies and food chains to develop and meet the demands of local consumers (Blay-Palmer and Donald, 2006: 390). This inability of large companies to meet localized consumer demand, in addition to consumers’ increasing ideological resistance to the products of globalized food chains and preference for local foods, together point to the important role consumers have played in the formation of alternative food chains.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly when considering rural communities, the alternative food chain can also be described as a reaction against the conventional food chain on the part of the producer. Farmers who do not abandon their farms in the face of the economic hardship of the conventional food chain may convert to the production and distribution style of the alternative food chain. For example, in their 2000 study, Marsden et al. cite the establishment of the Llyn beef-producers co-operative in Wales in 1997 as an “example of the development of short food supply chains prompted by the severe crisis and cost-price squeeze on the British livestock industry” (Marsden et al., 2000: 435). Likewise, Banks et al. call the value added to farm products by the alternative food chain a “way out of the [cost-price] ‘squeeze’” (Banks et al., 2003: 397).

Farmers may even join the alternative food chain partially on ideological grounds; in the words of Missouri farmer Russ Pisciotta, “This is more like farms used to be. The old farmers fed people directly, rather than going through middle men [sic]” (Pisciotta in McEowen, 2006). Clearly, alternative food chains are a reaction by producers and consumers alike to the modernization and globalization of the conventional food chain. Thus, alternative food movements have often been characterized by their ability to “re-spatialize” food as a response to the conventional food chain, in which the supply of food has been globalized to such an extent that it no longer exists spatially in the minds of consumers (Marsden and Sonnino, 2000: 183).

After placing these food movements in context, it is possible to examine their effects on rural communities and spaces. Firstly, as in the example of Llyn beef cited above, the alternative food chain can provide an economic outlet for struggling farmers to improve their income. More common in the alternative food chain, however, are the producers which begin with alternative production methods and have founded farms in the last 50 years and often much more recently. In either of these cases, the alternative food chain adds value to farmers’ products by emphasizing higher quality and therefore fetching higher prices than products of the conventional food chain. Banks et al. estimate that in Germany, Italy, and France, alternative food chains (for example cooperatives of producers who market directly to the consumer) provide an increase of 7-10% in the net value of a product added by the farmer (Banks et al., 2003: 407).

The alternative food chain can also improve farmers’ incomes and fuel rural economies with tourism. For example, farms such as the Rhöngold organic dairy in Germany offer consumers “high-quality and region-specific products” as well as an image of pristine rural, natural landscape which together attract agritourism and rural tourism (Knickel and Renting, 2000: 515). This tourism contributes significantly to farmers’ incomes. Considering this tourism as well as the added product values discussed earlier, many scholars assert rather generally that alternative food chains can “revitalize rural areas” and have “economic benefits for the region as a whole” (Marsden and Sonnino, 2000: 181, 182).

While I believe this is true, the effects of alternative food chains on rural areas are no doubt more complex than this beginning designation might imply. For example, the emergence of alternative food chains can also result in competition between these chains and conventional ones (Marsden and Sonnino, 2000: 196). Though I surmise that the net benefits or costs of food chain competition are difficult to assess, this competition complicates the generalized economic benefits that alternative food chains bring to rural areas. Though I could not find specific on-the-ground examples of this food chain competition in the current scholarship, one form that results is competition on the retail level between corporate and local retailers (Marsden and Sonnino, 2000: 197). Also inherent in the different structure of alternative food chains is a different relationship between the producer and other components of the food chain. For example, the alternative food chain necessarily includes few or no distributors and therefore affects the business of regional food distributors, but in ways that are very hard to assess (Knickel and Renting, 2000: 516).

Thus, we can begin to see the complexity of the effects of the alternative food chain on rural development. Though it is widely agreed that this food chain is generally a positive force of revitalization and regrowth, it is also importantly a more complex force of “reshaping” and restructuring of rural spaces (Marsden and Sonnino, 2000: 196). The complexity and variability of this reshaping makes it difficult to classify and evaluate, but it may cause competition between conventional and alternative food chains and affect rural food distributors tied to agriculture.

Though I do believe strongly that these effects on the rural community as well as the broader trends of farm consolidation mentioned earlier are results of the modernization of the food chain, it is important to acknowledge the inherent difficulty in drawing direct cause-and-effect relationships in this field. Even though trends of contract farming and farm consolidation are easy to identify, distinct causes are more difficult to discern. For example, many argue that the modernization and mechanization of on-farm practices (more so than the  modernization of the structure of the food chain) contributes to the rural out-migration because machines have in many instances taken the place of people previously employed in agriculture.

I have tried in my writing here to focus on the effects of changes in food chain structure rather than the effects of changes in on-farm practices, because I believe the former is an under-studied and under-acknowledged area of research. However, this is clearly not an insignificant subject. The cost-price squeeze caused largely by structural changes in the food chain as well as the development of alternative food chains in response to these difficulties have large and complex effects on rural communities, as well as consumers outside these communities, and the health of the environment. The various social and economic effects of food chain modernization include farm consolidation and subsequent decreases in rural population, as well as the more complex political and social implications of contract farming. The alternative food chain has developed in response to these as well as other downsides to the modernized conventional food chain, and has complex but often positive effects on rural communities. These include increasing farmers’ incomes, causing competition between farmers who follow different production models, and affecting other rural industries tied to agriculture.

The structural changes in the food chain responsible for this larger reshaping of rural communities are no doubt inextricably tied to changes in on-farm practices, but the difficulty in distinguishing between the two does not take away from the importance of the former. It is essential to take all these complexities into consideration when attempting to form a comprehensive view of conventional and alternative food chains and their diverse impacts on rural communities. I strongly believe that this knowledge can benefit consumers and activists currently involved in the local food movement and other alternative food chains, helping these people to truly understand the movement they are reacting to, the movement they are participating in, and the implications of both of these for the farmers growing our food.


A shocking depiction of widespread food industry concentration/consolidation, as shown by the hugely disproportionate market share held by just the top four companies of different products, ranging from 55% to 84%. This image is from a Farm Aid article, though I don’t know what year the data is from.

I didn’t include my list of references because I figured no one really wanted to read a long list of formal citations. If you are interested in reading any of the articles I’ve cited here, just e-mail me (below) and I can send the titles your way, though you likely won’t have access to most unless you can use your university’s database or the like.

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at and check out my twitter, @Eat4theEarth, for interesting links and articles.

Diet and Climate Change

In their 2009 study in Climatic Change, Stehfest et al. pointed out that “climate change mitigation policies tend to focus on the energy sector, while the livestock sector receives surprisingly little attention, despite the fact that it accounts for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions and for 80% of total anthropogenic land use.” As many begin to realize the significance of agriculture-based emissions and contributions to climate change, researchers are increasingly studying this topic. Though this is definitely a very recent trend, I was able to find several studies from the last ten years which focus on the connection between dietary choices and future climate change. You can find these studies and more at the end of this post, if you want to read their abstracts and understand them more deeply. The basic idea behind all the studies is the same. They use measured demographic and agricultural trends (for example agricultural yields, dietary choices, population growth, wealth, etc.) to create a model which contains the many variables that together define our current food system. Researchers can then run different theoretical future scenarios through the model and find the resultant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of each scenario. Different scenarios assume certain changes to the current food system, such as reduced meat consumption or yield increases. See the figure below for an example of Stehfest et al.’s results.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 3.20.43 PM

The above chart shows global GHG emissions in the year 2050, measured in gigatonnes CO2 equivalent. (A gas such as CH4 has a different Global Warming Potential (GWP) from CO2, based on its heat-trapping ability and lifetime in the atmosphere; the number graphed here is the estimated amount of CO2 equivalent to that of all GHGs emitted, based on GWP calculations for various gases such as CH4 and NO2.)

Each of the bars shown above represents a different future scenario. REF is the reference scenario in which all current trends continue. This could be thought of as the control. Scenario IP is based on widespread improvement in productivity. TM includes this productivity improvement as well as the adoption of specific emission mitigation technologies such as adding fat to cattle feed, which decreases the amount of CH4 cows emit during digestion. The CC, or Climate Carnivore scenario assumes that worldwide 75% of ruminant meat and dairy products are replaced by other animal products (in addition to the steps taken in IP and TM). Ruminant animal products (those derived from ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats) have inherently higher GHG emissions because these animals digest the cellulose in their food by way of fermentation, which produces the potent greenhouse gas CH4 as a byproduct. This explains the large reduction in emissions from the CC scenario. Finally, the FL or Flexitarian scenario assumes that 75% of animal products are replaced by plant-based sources (once again, in addition to IP and TM improvements).

As you can clearly see, the FL scenario, in which the least animal products are consumed, results in the lowest agriculture-based GHG emissions of all situations. As authors Hedenus et al. explain, “deep cuts in emissions from food and agriculture do not seem plausible without large changes in consumption towards less GHG intensive food, in particular less ruminant meat and dairy.” What I find fascinating here is the significance of the emissions reduction from simply decreasing consumption of ruminant products. I think this is encouraging for those who can see the value in eating fewer animal products, but are not able to change their diet drastically because of certain limiting factors. If we all made the effort to eat less beef and milk, the climate would be measurably better off.

In a similar study, authors Bajželj et al. asserted that “only when strategies include significant elements of demand reduction is it possible to prevent an increase in agricultural expansion and agriculture-related GHG emissions.” The emphasis here is on managing agriculture-based emissions from the demand side of the food chain rather than (or in addition to) the supply side, i.e. changing diets rather than changing agricultural methods. Agriscience research is focused almost completely on increasing yields and this effort is no doubt important, as the researchers acknowledge. However, there are “biophysical limits” on yields and we cannot continue to increase these forever. For this reason and many others, it is valuable and necessary to change the demand side of the food chain. This means changing our diet and eating less animal products. See below for a visualization of the findings of this study.


In the above chart, Bajželj et al. compare the emissions (in gigatonnes COequivalent per year) resulting from agriculture and land use change in six different scenarios. Every CT scenario assumes the continuation of Current Trends in yield increases. Every YG scenario is based on a worldwide closing of the Yield Gap, so that every region is producing at its maximum yield possible. Hence we can see that all YG scenarios involve less emissions, as food is produced more efficiently in these scenarios. Both number 1 scenarios (CT1 and YG1) include no dietary changes. Number 2 scenarios include 50% reduction in global food waste. Number 3 scenarios include this food waste reduction as well as adoption of a theoretical “healthy diet,” with decreased consumption of sugars, oils, and importantly a huge reduction in red meat and other animal products. In other words, CT1 represents a “business-as-usual” scenario while YG3 represents the optimal path for our food industry, and all other scenarios are combinations of different emission reduction strategies. The two horizontal lines in the graph represent benchmark emissions levels; the dotted black line shows the amount of CO2 produced by agriculture in 2009 and the red line shows the emissions level which would raise global temperatures by 2 ºC, a commonly used target.

The difference between CT1 and CT3 is clearly larger than that between CT1 and YG1. CT3 involves the adoption of dietary changes from CT1, whereas YG1 only involves improved yields from CT1. The larger emission reduction in CT3 means that food-demand changes can actually reduce emissions more than food-supply changes, at least as estimated by the model used here. Once again we can understand the importance of reducing consumption of animal products, as evidenced by the most recent scientific study.

Another 2014 study focused on the present consumption of animal products in UK rather than projecting into the future. In this study, Scarborough et al. surveyed more than 50,000 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and calculated the GHG emissions of each of these diets based on “food frequency questionnaires” as well as existing estimates of the GHG emissions of 289 individual foods. Their findings were straightforward and telling: “after adjustment for sex and age, an average 2,000 [Calorie] high meat diet had 2.5 times as many GHG emissions than an average 2,000 [Calorie] vegan diet.” In this case, a “high meat diet” describes one which involves more than 100 grams of meat per day. 100 grams is about 3.5 oz, which is not a very large portion. Thus many meat eaters likely fall into this category.

Not surprisingly given what we know about animal agriculture, these studies clearly had similar findings about the relative emissions of different scenarios, namely the following: In order to reduce the contribution of agriculture to climate change, we absolutely need to eat less animal products. It should be noted that each study used different models, different assumptions, and different scenarios so that quantitative results varied widely. However, this doesn’t weaken the findings because different outputs can be expected from different methods. The relative differences between scenarios and the conclusions drawn by the researchers based on these differences were all remarkably similar, and this is the important part.

All these studies focused on determining the GHG emission reduction possibilities of dietary change, but they did not touch on how this drastic, widespread dietary change can actually come about. People in developing countries who grow their own food or spend much of their income on food likely rely so heavily on animal products in their diet that it would be impossible to eliminate them. They simply do not have other options available. However, many of us in developed countries are able to reduce our consumption of animal products to some degree. We generally spend less of our income on food and have many alternatives to animal-based protein available to us. We are some of the very few people in the world who have this opportunity to make this change, so I believe that it is our responsibility to do so. There is widespread scientific consensus (as evidenced in the numerous studies cited here) that reducing consumption of animal products is a positive step for the future health of our planet and climate. Those of us who understand the reality of climate change and are able to take actions against it should do so.

Studies mentioned in this post, and others:
Importance of Food Demand Management for Climate Mitigation (in Nature Climate Change, August 2014)

The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets (in Climatic Change,  March 2014)

Climate Benefits of Changing Diet (in Climatic Change, February 2009)

Food Consumption, Diet Shifts, and Associated Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases from Agricultural Production (in Global Environmental Change, August 2010)

Dietary Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Meat-eaters Fish-eaters, Vegetarians, and Vegans in the UK (in Climatic Change, June 2014)

Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health (in Nature, November 2014) 

Also, a Civil Eats article on the above study^

Thanks for reading,

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at and check out my twitter, @Eat4theEarth, for interesting links and articles.


Interview with Amazing Farmer Mark Kimball

Mark Kimball heads the innovative and well-known Essex farm in Essex, New York. The farm has only been around for eleven years but grows a huge range of animal and plant products on its 850 acres. Mark is an inspiring guy who puts so much thought and energy into his farming. More so than any other farmers I have met, he is extremely aware of larger issues and his strong beliefs on these matters inform and frame his approach to farming. After visiting and working on Essex farm a few times, I wanted to interview Mark to hear more about his philosophy and practices. I posted this interview to FarmTogetherNow, where I am guest-blogging at the moment. In an attempt to honor my commitment to their blog, I have decided not to simply copy the entire post here but instead include a link to it. The interview is fairly long, so I split it up into two more digestible parts. Here are part one and part two. The piece includes thoughts from Mark on farming, food, labor, and the environment, among other things. If  you are interested in these topics, I think you will encounter some fascinating new ideas and perspectives in Mark’s words. If you don’t have a chance to read the interview, definitely check out Essex farm’s website or pick up Kristin Kimball’s book The Dirty Life which tells the story of this farm.

Additionally, in the future I am going to really try to post more frequently with a cool article, website or book that is worth checking out. If you have a twitter and are looking for interesting articles and such, I often post links to these kinds of things on my twitter, @Eat4TheEarth. If you have ideas for posts or anything you’d like to see me write about, you can e-mail me at

Thanks for reading,

Food Waste and Happy Thanksgiving!

I recently wrote a blog post about the huge issue of food waste for the Farm Together Now website, where I am guest-blogging. Though I wrote it for their blog, it is something I have been wanting to talk about on here for a while. I think the post is a great introduction to this relevant, fascinating issue (its importance, causes, effects, and solutions) so I definitely recommend you check it out here! It is a huge elaboration on a much older post about food waste and appreciating food. Below are a few thoughts surrounding my perspective on food waste that I didn’t express in the post for FTN.

I talk about a lot of different issues within the global food system on this blog, but I think food waste is the most universal and pervasive. Across all the different agricultural methods and models, throughout the whole system from production to consumption, we are wasting valuable, nutritious food that someone worked very hard to grow. Of course it is important to think about how we grow our food and which foods we choose to eat. But in a way, food waste permeates all other issues within the global food system. We can talk about GMOs and herbicide resistant crops; we can talk about the disappearance of the mid-sized farm; we can talk about industrial animal agriculture. In the background of all these issues there is always food waste. This idea is both scary and fascinating to me. So much money, energy, resources, work (and environmental impacts) are inherent in food production. While research is focused on more efficient use of these resources, food is meanwhile being wasted. Improvements in crop varieties and other technologies often do little to combat food waste, but many other diverse strategies at the consumer, producer, and policy levels are already making big differences. You can learn more about these in the post mentioned above. To stress the importance of food waste, here are some somewhat shocking (but also change-inspiring) statistics: 

It is estimated that the U.S. wastes nearly 40% of its food and that the combined social, economic, and environmental costs of food waste total $2.6 trillion dollars worldwide, annually (according to this study in the Public Library of Science and this report from the Food and Agriculture Organization).

Likewise, it is estimated that just a 15% reduction in food waste in the U.S. could feed 25 million Americans and that America uses 25% of all its freshwater to grow food that ends up being thrown away rather than eaten (according to the same study mentioned above, cited in this report from the National Resources Defense Council).

Lastly, I want to remark on what I feel the Thanksgiving holiday represents in relation to eliminating food waste. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays and I have grown to love it more as I have increasingly understood all the work that goes into producing food and how amazing food can be if prepared with care, savored, and shared. The value we place on food and our habits surrounding food play a huge role in the food waste issue, especially in developed countries where food waste happens mostly at the consumer level. I strongly believe that appreciating all the work and energy that goes into food (as we should do on Thanksgiving) helps to value food and pay more attention to our purchases and habits.

This may sound a bit cheesy and idealistic, and of course there are many other effective strategies we must also take in order to combat food waste. But as I like to say, “consumers are the greatest contributors to the food waste problem in developed countries, so we are necessarily a huge part of its solution.” Of all the food issues that we try to combat personally with our dietary and consumer choices, I think that food waste is the easiest one to fight directly in this way. There’s a lot of advice out there on specific strategies to avoid wasting food, e.g. this list from Kitchn. Here are a few tidbits from me: try to eat all your leftovers before going out to buy new food, trust your senses (sight, smell, taste) over the expiration date (which is an unregulated and often meaningless estimate), don’t go for the ridiculously huge bulk pack if you won’t eat it all, etc.

So enjoy your Thanksgiving and I hope you have a delicious, slow, thoughtful meal! And don’t waste any of that beautiful food- eat all the leftovers!

Thanks for reading,

Interview with Hallie Muller of Full Belly Farm

For this post, I had the opportunity to interview Hallie Muller of the amazing Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. I actually originally posted this at, an awesome website from the people behind the book Farm Together Now, which I reviewed on the Movies & Books page if you scroll down a bit. I am guest blogging for Farm Together Now for a few months, which is a really exciting experience. Anything I post on there I will also post here, but I definitely recommend checking out their website and subscribing to their blog if you like mine.

Alright, back to Full Belly Farm. I’d love to tell you all about the farm, but I’ll let Hallie say everything. Here’s the interview (with some photos of the farm mixed in):

Simon Willig: First, some background information on your farm: what do you grow/raise? Where is your farm located and what is your piece of land like (soil, history, layout, etc.)?

Hallie Muller: Full Belly Farm is a 450-acre CCOF certified organic diversified fruit, vegetable, grain, nut, and sheep  farm. Started in 1984 by Paul Muller and Dru Rivers, Full Belly Farm is now home to three generations of farmers and is owned and operated by Paul, Dru, Judith Redmond, Andrew Brait, and Amon and Jenna Muller, Paul and Dru’s oldest son and daughter-in-law. We are nestled in the Capay Valley in Northern California, a valley known for producing some of the highest quality organic fruits and vegetables in California. Our farmland is a beautifully rich clay loam, perfect for growing year-round. The climate in our region allows us to farm every day of the year – with summertime temperatures reaching well over 100º and winter frosts are never so harsh that we cannot grow brassicas and leafy greens.

SW: What is your philosophy/approach to farming? What experiences/ideas inform this approach?

HM: We have created a farm with a “whole system” approach – every action must be made with purpose, thought, and consideration of the impact it will have on the long term sustainability of our farm. We see our farm as a three legged stool – the legs being ecological, economic, and social sustainability – and each leg is of equal importance. The farm must maintain a levels of ecological sustainability – healthy water systems, healthy soil, and biological diversity is vital to the overall success of our fruits and vegetables. Our farm must also be economically sustainable – and we have worked to create a cash flow that is year round through direct marketing and our Community Supported Agriculture program. Finally, the social responsibility and sustainability of our farm manifests itself in the overall health of our crew.

SW: Who performs the labor on your farm: humans, tractors, horses, etc.? Why?

HM: Labor on our farm is performed mostly by humans – every crop we grow (with the exception of nuts and grains) is hand harvested, washed, and packed. This allows for the highest levels of quality control when it comes to our farm’s products. We do use tractors for discing, cultivating, planting, and tilling our soil. Animals are also an essential component to our farm – our sheep, contained in mobile electric fencing, move from field to field eating crop residue. Chickens are used to control pests in our grapes and apples. Goats take care of blackberry brambles near our creek-beds. Our farm has tried to take on a whole system approach – one that looks at every living being on our farm and asks, “how can this creature be useful to our farm?”

SW: How do you approach pest/disease management on your farm?

HM: As an organic farm, we use an approach to pests and diseases that works well in our organic system. Firstly, crops are rotated from field to field on a seasonal basis, rarely appearing in the same field more than once in a three to five year period. Second, we try to keep on top of diseases and pests so that we are in control before the issues become too much to handle. This means that we have created biological diversity around our fields with hedgerows and native plantings that allow for native insect populations, many of whom combat pests in our fields. We also use organic pesticides and we have a [pest control advisor] who helps to advise our farm. Finally, we plant our crops in small, successive blocks which allows us to maintain a “not all of our eggs in one basket” mentality (crop failure, though a loss for our farm, is not the end of the world). Our diversity is our best management method against pests and disease.









You can see in these pictures some of the diversity that Hallie mentions above. For a complete list of what Full Belly Farm grows as well as detailed information and recipes for each crop, check out their awesome crop timeline.

SW: Now for some broader questions about the food system: what is one big misconception consumers may have about food/farming?

HM: In my personal opinion, the biggest misconception is the real cost of food. American’s spend shockingly little on their food supply – and they expect it to be safe, tasty, and reliable. The price that consumers pay in the average grocery store does not reflect the real cost of producing that food. Organic and small scale farmers are often railed against because their food is “elitist” or too expensive for the common person, when in fact the price that those farmers are asking is the reflection of paying farm workers a fair wage, the true cost of organic seed, the true, non-subsidized cost of farmland and equipment and seeds, etc. The best way to change this misconception is through education – we find that our weekly newsletter that is delivered to each of our CSA customers is a great place for that to happen.

SW: What do you think is one of the biggest changes needed within our current food system?

HM: Continued support of small scale farms, less big ag vs. small ag mentality, and more consumer understanding of farming and food systems. There are so many opportunities for change! The thing that is most frightening for us is the movement towards more government regulation and less understanding of the realities of farm life by those making decisions. The Food Safety and Modernization Act has shaken many small farmers to the core – and continues to be a barrier for entry for new beginning farmers. This needs to change!

SW: How can consumers help to bring about change?

HM: Consumers can continue to vote with their food dollars – supporting small farmers at their local farmers markets, shopping at independent grocery stores, and joining CSA’s are great first steps!






In a beautiful example of what Hallie mentioned earlier, the sheep here are eating the leftovers of a chard crop, helping to make way for a new planting and getting a meal in the process.

Check out the Full Belly Farm website and facebook page for more great info and photos.

Thanks for reading,

The Farm Bill and its Significance

The Farm Bill is the colloquial name for the absolutely monstrous package of farm and food policy that Congress passes (or tries to pass) every five years. Though other pieces of legislation may also include similar issues, the consistent timing of the Farm Bill provides the government with a predictable arena to discuss and implement improvements to prevailing food and farm policy.

The Farm Bill is so huge and controversial that the topic could (and does) fill books upon books. In this post I want to just include some background and introduction to this fascinating topic as I currently understand and think about it. In a series of posts following this one, I will cover other important Farm Bill topics in more detail and depth: the politics of the bill, conservation, subsidies, nutrition, etc. Through these posts I will try to explain how the Farm Bill works and why it works this way. Additionally, I’ll try to address how we can use the Farm Bill as a tool to bring about change in the food industry.

The Significance of the Farm Bill

The most recent Farm Bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014 which was passed this February, authorizes an estimated $956 billion in federal spending over the course of ten years. In addition to its nearly trillion dollar cost, the bill covers a huge range of issues in its 959 pages. The Farm Bill includes several seemingly unrelated areas such as forestry, nutrition, agricultural subsidies, conservation, and rural development. Clearly, the Farm Bill has influence outside farmers’ fields, for example on the price of foods, the health of the environment, the wellbeing of rural communities, as well as water and air quality. Additionally, the bill is funded by our tax dollars.

As you can see, there are many interwoven issues and interests wrapped up in the Farm Bill. Recently, the House and Senate spent two years trying to navigate this maze and pass the latest Farm Bill. (Cartoon courtesy of Matt Wuerker at Politico)

In his book, Food Fight, author Dan Imhoff asserts that “if you eat, pay taxes, care about biodiversity, worry about the quality of school lunches, or notice the loss of farmland and woodlands, you have a personal stake in the Farm Bill.” Though these large social, economic, and environmental issues are hard to see first-hand and may seem far-off, they are no doubt important for the future of our society and the earth we rely on. I like Imhoff’s words “personal stake” as this bill really does impact all our daily lives, even if we don’t realize it or remind ourselves of it. When we fight to bring change to the Farm Bill, it is not about some obscure, distant issues but ones that are close-by and personal like the food we eat and the nature and wildlife we love.

We can look at agriculture itself as the intersection of many environmental issues: water usage, pollution of air and water, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and land degradation and erosion. In the quest to feed all humans, we will necessarily alter our planet and other creatures. It’s just a matter of doing so in an ethical and sustainable manner, one that keeps the land healthy for future generations and does not deplete our resources or environment. One of the most effective ways to change how we grow food is to start at the policy level. Policy in the Farm Bill has the amazing ability to incentivize environmentally beneficial behavior and disincentivize or prohibit environmentally harmful behavior.

Farmers can only produce in an environmentally sustainable way if it is economically viable. With the funds it has to offer, the Farm Bill can help make these practices possible. The bill therefore has the power to ameliorate or exacerbate all the aforementioned environmental issues depending on how funds are spent and the kind of practices they encourage. So then, how are these 1 trillion Farm Bill dollars spent? Surprisingly, about 79% of the funding from the 2014 bill goes to nutritional programs such as school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or simply food stamps) rather than to agriculture itself. I will talk more about this chunk of the bill in my next post. Second to nutrition are subsidies to agriculture in several different forms (the crop insurance and commodity programs slices in the graph below). These programs together make up about 15% of the total bill. Next in size, the conservation slice includes all the money that helps farmers to adopt any of several conservation-minded practices, such as setting land aside in a conservation reserve for several years. Again, more to come on conservation in future posts! I wrote a 15 page paper for class on conservation in the Farm Bill so I have a lot to say about this topic. Even though they take up a small percent of the bill’s total budget, other programs such as those devoted to research or certified organic practices also receive significant funds.

Above are the Farm Bill budget costs over the next ten fiscal years. (Photo courtesy of this Washington Post article)

If you have any questions or opinions you’d like to share, feel free to send me an e-mail at or just comment below. All of the above is my original thought or commonly accepted knowledge, accept where otherwise noted and where credit is given to someone else.

Additionally, I’ve just reviewed four more books, each very different in topic. You can check these book reviews out at the Movies & Books tab and scroll down to get to the books. The newly reviewed books are: Upton Sinclair’s classic The JungleFood, Inc. by Peter Pringle (an especially awesome book), Farm Together Now by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Thanks for reading,

Pasteurization and the Raw Milk Debate

I know it’s been a while since my last post but I’m really excited about this one and those to come. I have been pretty busy the last couple months, working on a farm for a couple weeks and then preparing for and settling into college at Middlebury. Between my farm work, the EcoFarm conference I attended, my favorite class Food Battles, and all the reading I have been doing, I’ve got a bunch of great posts lined up as well as several things to add to the recommended books and websites tabs. So get excited and keep checking back!

I wrote the following essay on pasteurization and raw milk for my Food Battles class and I learned a lot while writing it so I wanted to share it on here. My research and reading on this topic has changed my perspective on the issue since I last wrote about raw milk in this post from a couple years ago. My new essay is much more informed, scientific, and well-rounded. If you are wondering anything about pasteurization or the raw milk debate, hopefully this will clear things up. Since I wrote it for class, the language is pretty formal. (But don’t worry, I added in some cool pictures to break it up a bit and make it more interesting for all us visual learners.) Also, the proper citations and bibliography are a nice bonus if you want to check them out or learn more. Please comment with any questions you have! I’d love to discuss my findings and opinions. Here is my essay:

As our food system and society have industrialized and transitioned away from subsistence agriculture, we are increasingly distanced from our food sources and value convenience and a long shelf-life in food products. Previously, home food preservation methods like curing, drying, and canning were common. But currently, large companies process and preserve the majority of our food products.  Food is therefore more convenient, longer lasting, and its preparation takes up less of our time. We  have access to all types of foods at all times of the year. Perhaps most importantly of all, food is safer for us to eat. In order to make food safer, food processors employ techniques such as pasteurization that kill many pathogens present and prevent or slow their future growth. Pasteurization involves heating foods (usually liquids) and then immediately cooling them in order to kill bacteria that lead to spoilage or disease.

Though canning and other home preservation techniques are fun and satisfying to try out, industrial food preservation and processing helps bring us a safe, convenient, and diverse food supply.

Though pasteurization undoubtedly makes milk and juice safer to drink and longer-lasting, opponents of the process argue that it destroys some of milk’s beneficial health properties and that its universalization makes difficult the production of and access to unpasteurized milk, a healthy and safe product in its own right. The precursor to the modern process of pasteurization was developed by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who studied fermentation and found that it was a live microbial process, not just a chemical one as previously thought. Through his experiments, Pasteur proved that air-borne bacteria contaminate and spoil foods and that he could destroy them by exposing them to heat.

Pasteur’s process, refined and modernized, would later be known as pasteurization. But pasteurization was not widespread until long after Pasteur died. USDA bacteriologist Alice Evans is many ways responsible for the widespread use of the process. Evans discovered that a common disease among cows, Brucellosis, was being transferred to humans through bacteria (now known as Brucella melitensis) in raw milk. Through her advocating of pasteurization as a prevention of this disease, the US eventually adopted the practice on a larger scale in the 1930s.

In modern pasteurization, food is heated to a calculated temperature and held there for a specific time based on the conditions required to kill the most heat resistant pathogenic bacteria in that food. In milk these are Coxiella burnetii and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, responsible for causing Q fever and tuberculosis respectively. The given food is then cooled immediately and quickly in order to avoid remaining at a temperature which could support bacterial growth.

Though we might not think about it, the milk we drink makes its way through a pasteurizer like the one above before it gets to us. I don’t mean to say that our milk shouldn’t be pasteurized just because it has to go through the above scary metal contraption. I just that it’s interesting and important to know where our food has been before we eat it.

There are several different time-temperature combinations that will give the desired sterility, but in the US milk is most commonly heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds, known as high temperature short time or HTST. Under a microscopic view, this heat kills microorganisms by destroying the organic molecules that are essential to their function. The high temperature denatures proteins and changes their shape, weakens bonds in the cell wall, liquefies phospholipids, damages RNA and mutates DNA.

Zooming back out, this pasteurization is most often performed on a large scale with a technique known as continuous flow. In this approach, raw milk chilled to 39 degrees Fahrenheit is forced through tubes heated by steel plates surrounded by hot steam or water. In the holding tube, the milk remains at the required 161 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 16 seconds. As the water continues flowing, a temperature sensor ensures it has been sufficiently and evenly heated. If the milk isn’t hot enough, it is pumped back into the initial raw milk tank to be heated again. If the milk has reached the desired temperature, it is chilled with coolant back down to 39 degrees Fahrenheit and stored at that temperature before packaging and shipping. In total, this process kills 99.999% of microorganisms present in raw milk without destroying much nutritional value (Stabel et al. 2004).

Though the added safety and extended shelf life offered by this process are beneficial, the pasteurization of foods (mostly milk) stirs up a lot of controversy. Because pasteurization has become standard and legally required in many states, opponents fight for the right to produce and drink unpasteurized, raw milk. It has largely turned from a food safety issue into a political issue. Though I believe the right to produce and consume raw milk should be universal, I also acknowledge that in this debate, much of the science has been traded for politics and sensationalism.

Many associate the legality of raw milk consumption with the basic freedom to drink and eat what one wants.

Advocates of raw milk claim that the pasteurization of milk destroys many beneficial nutrients, bacteria, and enzymes. As far as modern science can tell, this is for the most part not true (or at least it is not that simple). Though small amounts of some nutrients are lost during pasteurization, milk is not a good source of many of these nutrients compared with other foods. A 1943 study showed that pasteurization destroys about 10% of the Vitamin B2 present in raw milk, 20% of the Vitamin C, and 5% of the soluble phosphorus and calcium (Wilson 1943). There is also a 10% loss of B6 (Schoenfeld 2012) and slight decrease in Copper and Iron levels after pasteurization (Cosano et al. 1994).

Raw milk advocates also claim that beneficial enzymes are destroyed during pasteurization. While it is true that pasteurization inactivates most enzymes, many of the broad claims about beneficial enzymes are misinformed or represent a simplified version of the scientific truth. Lactase, for example, is necessary for the digestion of the milk sugar lactose. Proponents of raw milk often point to the lactase content of raw milk as a beneficial digestive aid. In reality though, lactase is synthesized in the digestive system of mammals and is not present in raw milk.

While the enzyme lipase is present in raw milk and destroyed by pasteurization, it does not have any beneficial biological function in milk. Lipase “is involved in the synthesis of milk fat triglycerides in the mammary gland and its presence in milk is due [only] to a spillover from this gland” (Deeth 2006). Lipase has the ability to break down the fat in milk, actually causing rancidity. If we were to drink raw milk, the acidity of our stomachs would destroy the lipase present and any beneficial digestive aid that could come from it.

Phosphatase is an enzyme present in raw milk that is known to help in the breakdown of phosphorus and calcium. It is completely destroyed by pasteurization and in fact a common test for successful pasteurization is the phosphatase test, which checks that all phosphatase present has been inactivated. Even though the beneficial function of phosphatase has been proven, it seems the variable amount of the enzyme present in raw milk and the effectiveness of this amount in our body is trickier to pinpoint. If there is a study on this matter out there, I could not find it.

We can quickly see how complicated the science surrounding this issue gets. In short, though pasteurization does inactivate many enzymes present in milk, the functionality and nature of these enzymes in the milk and our digestion is far too complex to broadly assert that pasteurizing milk kills all good enzymes. As has been made clear by many studies, nutrient losses from pasteurization are miniscule enough for many to consider them insignificant and irrelevant among the larger issues. I think that these nutrient losses are noteworthy and should be acknowledged in order to get a complete view of the issue, but also that they pale in importance to larger questions of policy and safety.

It is easy to associate raw milk with an idyllic scene like the one above in which cows are grazed on fresh pasture and hand milked. However, it is not that simple. On a larger raw milk dairy, cows may be milked by machines instead of by hand, held in closer confinement than would be expected, and fed more grain then fresh grass. Too often the benefits of good dairy practices are counted among the benefits of raw milk. The two may go together, but aren’t inherently tied. And on the other hand, many caring farmers with sustainable practices may choose to pasteurize their milk.

All too often, raw milk advocates really oppose the practices of the larger conventional agriculture system when they say they oppose pasteurization. On a list of “15 Things that Milk Pasteurization Kills,” Marc McAffee includes “the family farm” and “the consumer connection [to farms],” which are threatened by the flood of cheap commodity milk from large far-away dairy operations (McAffee 2012). Truthfully, these threats are consequences of our current agricultural model, not of pasteurization.

Defending this agricultural system are federal organizations like the CDC, FDA, and USDA, who strongly criticize unpasteurized milk for its health risks. In reality though, the health risks associated with drinking raw milk aren’t as considerable as the FDA often makes them sound. The CDC found that 60% of the reported disease outbreaks in milk from 1993-2006 were caused by unpasteurized milk (Langer et al. 2012). Pasteurized milk still caused 40% of those outbreaks. Therefore raw milk is statistically slightly more dangerous than pasteurized milk. However, raw milk is not “uniquely dangerous” compared to other foods, raw or processed (Weston A. Price Foundation 2012).

According to the FDA branch Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, one serving of deli meat is 10.8 times more likely to give illness by Listeria than one serving of raw milk (CFSAN 2003). It’s true that raw milk is a minimally processed food that can be contaminated by poor conditions. But the majority of the time, farmers who believe strongly in selling their milk raw will take care to maintain a clean, healthy environment in order to produce the safest product possible. As we can tell from the CDC report mentioned above, outbreaks can be caused by pasteurized milk as well: if there is a misstep after pasteurization, harmful bacteria may be introduced to the milk. Clearly, there is inherent risk to consuming any product that comes from a farm or from an animal (i.e. everything we eat).

Clearly, milk (including unpasteurized milk) does not cause a large fraction of foodborne diseases. (Image from 2008 Center for Science in the Public Interest report).

As I see it, this industrialized food preservation process fits right into our industrialized food production and distribution system. In the conditions of a conventional dairy operation exist many contaminants such as feces and dirt, disease and infection of the cows, and animal vectors like insects and rodents. Even if the cow is exceptionally healthy and clean, contamination of the milk by surface- or air-borne bacteria is always possible. Milk must often survive hundreds of miles and several days in transport. Pasteurization helps it to do so. Together with the rest of the food system, the sterility and extended shelf-life offered by pasteurization help make milk cheap, widespread, and safe.

However, pasteurized milk’s lower price and ubiquity does not mean that it is objectively preferable to unpasteurized milk. I can personally attest to the superior taste of raw milk and I enjoy drinking such a fresh, minimally processed product. I believe that everyone should have the right to drink or produce it. Though I can definitely see the place and value of pasteurization in our food system, I believe that every state should legalize the retail sale of unpasteurized milk as to encourage diversification rather than standardization. Current state laws, whether they prohibit retail sale or all sale of raw milk, should be changed so that farmers who can’t afford pasteurization equipment or wish to sell raw milk on ideological grounds can do so and have an equal opportunity in the market.

For me this policy surrounding unpasteurized milk is the biggest downside of pasteurization. The most problematic aspect of the pasteurization debate is the close-mindedness of each side that prevents them from acknowledging the validity of each other’s arguments and keeps pasteurized and raw milk producers and advocates at odds when they could work together to create a balanced, diversified food system in which policy supports both approaches.

In the diagram above, a herdshare is a method of buying raw milk in states which may outlaw other sales of raw milk. In a herd share, you are technically buying a fraction of the animal (e.g. 25 people each own 1/25 of a cow) and not its milk. Together, you and the other shareholders own the whole cow. You pay the farmer to take care of your cow and get your own cow’s milk.

Works Cited:

“The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk.” Food Facts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 17 June 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

“Fresh Unprocessed (Raw) Milk: Safety, Health, and Economic Issues.” A Campaign for Real Milk. N.p., 9 Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Kesser, Chris. “Raw Milk Reality: Benefits of Raw Milk.” Chris Kresser. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

Langer, Adam J., Tracy Ayers, Julian Grass, MIchael Lynch, Frederick J, Angulo, and Barbara E. Mahon. “Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws–United States, 1993-2006.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

“Louis Pasteur: Pasteurization/Vaccines.” Inventor of the Week: Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Apr. 2003. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

McAffee, Mark. “The 15 Things That Milk Pasteurization Kills.” A Campaign for Real Milk. N.p., 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

“Milk Enzymes.” Milk Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

“More About Enzymes.” Raw Milk Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

“National Women’s History Museum.” Education & Resources. National Women’s History Museum, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

“Pasteurization: Definition and Methods.” International Dairy Foods Association. International Dairy Foods Association, June 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

“Pasteurization.” University of Guelph Food Science. University of Guelph, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

“Raw Milk Questions and Answers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

“Raw Milk: What the Scientific Literature Really Says.” Real Milk. Weston A. Price Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Schoenfeld, Pam. “Vitamin B6: The Underappreciated Vitamin.” Vitamins and Minerals. Weston A. Price Foundation, 1 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Wilson, G. S. “The Pasteurization of Milk.” U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. British Medical Journal, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Zurera-Cosano, G., R. Moreno-Rojas, and M. Amaro-Lopez. “Effect of Processing on Contents and Relationships of Mineral Elements of Milk.” ScienceDirect. Elsevier B.V., 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.


The Beauty of Heritage Animal Breeds (Tons of Amazing Pictures!)

Before I get into the bulk of the post, I want to say right now that if you are  too excited about the pictures of cute and crazy looking farm animals, feel free to scroll to the bottom first and check them out. I promise I won’t be too offended. I also promise these varieties will be like nothing you’ve ever seen. Picture chickens with mohawks, afros, beards, and five foot long tails. Now for my actual words (and a few nice pictures mixed in). Though this post got pretty long, I think it is a very informative, comprehensive look at livestock breeds and the important differences between heritage and modern ones.

As we saw in my last post, a drive for high yields in farming can force us to sacrifice quality:  flavor, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. But when looking at farming livestock, it’s important to realize that the drive for high yield breeds also becomes an ethical issue. When livestock are bred for quick growth and weight gain above all else, the health and happiness of the animals can be sacrificed. Common breeds such as the Cornish Cross (a chicken) or Broad-Breasted White (a turkey) grow muscles and fat so quickly that their bones, organs, and other systems can’t really keep up. As a result, 75% of these chickens on industrial farms will have “some degree of walking impairment” (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer). Many will suffer from immune, breathing, and heart problems.

These animals are almost always the product of artificial insemination and indeed most conventionally raised turkeys have breasts so large (up to 70% of their body weight) that they are physically unable to mate. Basically, these animals have been so highly bred for our purposes that they can’t do something so inherently important to their functionality as having sex. It is speculated that the Broad-breasted White would go extinct in a single generation were it not for our artificial insemination. There is clearly something wrong with this situation.

Prior to our current industrialization of animal husbandry, animal breeds were developed pretty differently. Sure, breeds were crossed to bring out desirable characteristics that would serve our purposes like high productivity. But as these animals spread to different places and were allowed to mate on their own, they adapted to the climate and geography of the area they lived. Many were named for their place of origin: the Appenzeller chicken from the Appenzell region of Sweden, the Scottish Blackface sheep, or the Ossabaw island pig from an island off the coast of Georgia.

No doubt these animals were actually able to have sex and knew how to raise their own offspring. These animals were far closer to their wild counterparts both anatomically and behaviorally than a highly bred modern variety like the Broad-Breasted White. The process that brought these breeds into being was closer to good old natural selection. From this long, slow process comes a population of animals that have a wider range of characteristics then what would typically be called a “breed.” The name for this group is a landrace.

An awesome example is the Hedemora chicken. This chicken is named for the town in Sweden from which it originated and has lived for at least 500 years. The small chicken has a thick layer of feathers and a reduced comb and wattle so that it is perfectly adapted to the cold. It can withstand sub-zero temperatures and will continue laying eggs as long as the temperature is above 5º F. As is true for many landraces, Hedemoras can be quite different in appearance. Some have feathered legs, some have very fine fur-like feathers, and there are many different colors present.

The furry-looking variety of the Hedemora: modest but hardy

The feather-legged variety of the Hedemora with striking red and black coloration

Nowadays, these types of animals might also be known as “Heritage” breeds. The Livestock Conservancy defines Heritage animals as “traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers.” They continue, using similar words as mine above:

         “These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became            a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over            time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment          and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are                very different from those found in modern agriculture.

         Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-            sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability            to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.

         Heritage animals once roamed the pastures of America’s pastoral landscape,          but today these breeds are in danger of extinction. Modern agriculture has              changed, causing many of these breeds to fall out of favor. Heritage breeds            store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future and the          future of our agricultural food system.”

And now we come back to the same principle that I hit upon in my earlier post: the importance of preserving this “genetic resource.” We can all help out on this front. Maybe if you start a backyard flock of chickens, you can get a diverse group of animals from a place like Just Struttin’ Farm which works to preserve these breeds. I got two of my hens, pretty Mille Fleur Leghorns from Just Struttin’. “Mille Fleur” describes the coloration of these hens and means “a thousand flowers.” This designation is fitting to describe the spots of white and black that cover these awesome birds.

A similar place is Green Fire Farms (who breed very rare chicken varieties and are often the first people in the US to raise certain breeds). In choosing these breeders, you help maintain the diversity of functional, historic breeds and support the hard work of the animals and people that created them. That choice is clearly much better for the animals and environment than buying an uninteresting, ubiquitous breed from a hatchery. These hatcheries often employ cruel practices like grinding day old male chicks alive since females are obviously the only ones useful for laying eggs.

Chickens out on pasture at Just Struttin’ Farm in Novato, CA.

Additionally, you can choose to buy a heritage turkey at thanksgiving (one that will probably taste better and actually had the ability to mate while it was alive). This action is more in the plant realm, but you can also find someone at the farmers market who grows cool heirloom varieties. One stand at the Menlo Park farmers market has things like Watermelon radishes (light green on the outside, bright pink on the inside as you’ll see in the picture below); Spanish Black radishes (a variety uncommon in the US that contains something called glucosinolate metabolites which supposedly help with organ function and extracts of the turnip are made into vitamin supplements);  Borage (a little blue edible flower); Nopales (the young leaves of the prickly pear cactus which supposedly taste a little like green beans); and bright purple Wild Mountain Spinach also called Orach. These varieties are fascinating to learn about and eat for the first time. More importantly, buying them helps support the kind of farm that cares about this awesome diversity.

The crazy looking Watermelon radish

And now for the most fun part of the post: the animal pictures! I have spent the last week compiling a bunch of images of breeds that I find spectacular. They are not all necessarily heritage breeds or landraces. Though many are old and historic breeds, the point of the pictures is mainly to show the diversity of breeds. I strongly believe this diversity needs to be preserved in the coming years. I’ll start with the chickens because they are my favorite.

The strikingly beautiful Ayam Cemani is from Indonesia and coveted for it’s all black skin, feathers, comb, and legs. (Even its meat and bones are black). The chicken is extremely rare in the US and anywhere outside of Indonesia. How rare? A pair of them costs $5000 at Green Fire Farms, likely the only place you can buy them here.

The Brabanter: check out that V-shaped comb and mohawk (or crest if you want to be proper). The pattern on its chest is known as spangled. Chickens can come in tons of different patterns like spangled, barred, mottled, penciled, laced, or the beautiful double-laced.

The White-Faced Spanish: there are records of this breed going back to 1572.

Who could ignore the beard and big chest of the grumpy looking Belgian Bearded D’Anvers? You can start to see that chickens come in all shapes and postures.

The Modern Game Bantam (this color is called lemon blue) was developed for purely ornamental purposes. Many breeds come in a large or Bantam (smaller) variety. This particular Bantam weighs only about one pound.

The Jersey Giant is quite a contrast from the Modern Game Bantam and weighs about 13 pounds. (Human included for scale)

The Sebright is an ornamental breed from England. The names for their colors are pretty fancy: the birds are either silver (above) or golden. That interesting looking comb you see on the hen’s head is called a Rose comb, one of many different comb shapes that chickens may have.

The Yokohama (this color is the red-shouldered) is one of a few long-tailed ornamental breeds like the  Onagadori, whose tails can reach 27 feet in length. In my opinion, breeding a chicken to have this long tail is similar to breeding one for a huge breast: both qualities may come at the expense of the chicken, who is rendered dysfunctional in some ways (only in extreme cases with the long-tailed breeds). In one such case, the Onagadori is sometimes kept in a cruel and tight cabinet-like hutch in which it stands on a high platform to preserve its tail.

This funny-looking bird is the Araucana from Chile. It has those awesome ear tufts, lays blue or green eggs, and is one of a few rumpless breeds (meaning it has no tailbone and often no tail).

Because I promised you a chicken with an afro, here’s the Polish. At a local summer camp and farm, we used to call these the disco chickens. I think it’s a fitting name. This particular one is a Frizzle Polish, which means it has those crazy curved feathers that stick out like above. Many different breeds come in a Frizzle variety.

If you thought chickens were all white or brown and about the same size, now you know how diverse they are. Yes, they come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. But they can also have different combs, different egg colors, different body shapes and postures, beards, crests, ear tufts,  and feathered legs. Now onto some pictures of other livestock:

The Highland cattle has long, thick fur to protect it from the cold temperatures of the Scottish Highlands.

The Ankole-Watusi is an African breed of cattle known for its huge horns which can reach 8 feet from tip to tip. The cattle use their horns as a defense and to cool themselves off, as they contain blood vessels which can help radiate heat.

The Chianina cattle from Italy is one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world (raised for at least 2,200 years) and definitely the largest. Bulls can be taller than 6 feet and weigh almost 4,000 pounds.

The painted Desert Sheep is a hardy breed from the Southwest US. Known for its spotted coat and mane, the breed is a “hair sheep,” meaning it doesn’t have the  thick coarse coat typical to sheep and looks more like its wild ancestors.

The Valais Blacknose sheep originates from the chilly Valais region of Sweden and is unbelievably cute.

Nigerian Dwarf Goats are a miniature dairy goat from West Africa. Their small size, varied colors, and high productivity in milking makes them a popular backyard breed.

The Leicester Longwool is an increasingly rare breed developed in the 18th century in England. Those awesome long, wavy locks make it one of a few designated “Longwool” breeds. Its high-quality wool and meat mean that it has been bred into many other varieties to bring about these desirable characteristics.

And last but not least: the ducks!

The Cayuga duck is unique not just because of its green-black iridescent coat, but also its green, gray or black eggs. If you have never had duck eggs before, see if you can find some well-raised ones at your local farmers market. They are bigger than chickens’, matte so that they look like stone, and super creamy.

The Muscovy duck descends from a different species than most other domestic ducks. They are larger and have those characteristic knobs on top of their beaks. Also, drakes (the male ducks) raise their crests to attract females or fend off other males.

The Indian Runner duck runs around everywhere instead of waddling like most ducks. You gotta love their signature funny posture, too!

I think it is easy to see that these diverse breeds of animals are by far preferable to those factory farmed Cornish Crosses and Broad-Breasted Whites. Their diverse characteristics, history, and functionality are worth maintaining.

As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her book  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:                     

         “Our purpose for keeping heritage animals is food-system security, but also            something else that is less self-serving: the dignity of each breed’s true and              specific nature. A Gloucester Old Spots hog in the pasture, descended from            her own ancient line, making choices, minute by minute, about rooting for              grubs and nursing her young, contains in her life a sensate and intelligent                “pigness.” It’s a state of animal grace that never even touches the sausages-            on-hooves in an industrial pig lot.”


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve heritage livestock breeds:

Green Fire Farms:


The Importance of Crop Diversity

Modern crop and livestock varieties are often bred for their yield, disease resistance, uniformity, and ability to withstand shipment. Our large-scale food system needs a productive, pest-resistant, shippable crop to feed a huge and widespread population. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with seeking out these traits and I can understand their importance. However, I think we run into problems when our desire for uniformity and durability forces us to compromise diversity and nutrition.

Let me share a story from the Florida tomato industry to explain myself. As surprising and seemingly random as it is, Florida indeed produces 40-45% of this country’s tomatoes. In 2005, the Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation crossed a French heirloom tomato with a more conventional, disease-resistant Florida tomato. The resulting variety was flavorful and hardy but ugly and wrinkled compared to the industry standard: a smooth, round (and flavorless) tomato. Leader of the company Joe Procacci named his new tomato the UglyRipe and its sales grew steadily once it hit the market. People really liked UglyRipes and were willing to pay a premium for their superior vine-ripened flavor. (The majority of other conventionally grown tomatoes are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas.) Indeed the tomato’s sales began to compete with those of the traditional varieties (Florida rounds, as they are called) grown by the majority of other farmers in the state.

Procacci’s UglyRipe tomato in all of its ugly glory (from Tomato Casual)

Enter the Florida Tomato Committee whose members are made up of Procacci’s competitors, other Florida tomato growers. This committee decides the exact standard of size and shape (down to the millimeter) that any tomato leaving the state must meet. Even though UglyRipes were permitted to sell for a few years as an “experimental crop,” the tomatoes didn’t meet the committee standard and were no longer allowed to be sold. Joe Procacci was forced to throw away 700 acres worth of UglyRipes and lost $3 million. Luckily, with much fighting, Procacci won exemption from the standards. But as you can see, there is something seriously wrong with a food system in which standardization and the norm can beat out a product which is better for the consumers. The idea of growing a few select varieties and excluding others for the mere sake of uniformity is clearly flawed. But the system of regulations that has grown around this idea ––the system in which the Florida Tomato Committee exists–– is even more flawed.

Yes, those are unripe tomatoes and not Granny Smith apples (from the LA Times).

As you can see, US farmers grow only the tiniest fraction of available crop varieties on a large scale. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) estimates that 97% of the cultivars grown in 1903 are now extinct, largely because of our tendency to seek out and breed those few one-crop-fits-all varieties and forget about the others. As scientist and founder of RAFI Cary Fowler puts it, we can see the thousands of crop varieties as a “genetic resource” for future generations. It is important to preserve these varieties even if they aren’t uniform or don’t seem to be of use at this point. Though one crop variety may seem to work well for a number of solid scientific reasons (like common GE corn variety 34B98 and its outstanding yields), we never know what valuable traits other varieties could offer.

In the future, these varieties may add resiliency to our food system if a new pest appears and a long-existent variety proves to be resistant to it. With this in mind, critics of monoculture argue that growing a single crop over large areas increases vulnerability to factors such as disease and changing climate. The Irish potato famine is an interesting case study to examine when considering this criticism. In the 1840s, most poor Irish farmers were growing only a few potato varieties and were very dependent on them as a source of nutrition and livestock feed. For these reasons, a new disease called late blight was able to decimate their crop and threaten their livelihood. Across the world in Peru, where potato cultivation likely began and 2,800 potato varieties still exist, many late blight resistant cultivars have been found. Though the causes and results of the Irish famine are of course diverse and complex, maybe the famine wouldn’t have been so extreme if farmers were growing several potato varieties and some were resistant to late blight. Also, it would have helped to grow a wider range of crops and therefore have more diverse sources of nutrition.

In a way, our current dependence on corn as livestock feed mirrors the Irish dependence on potatoes pre-famine: corn accounts for 95% of the grains we grow for livestock feed and a few genetically-modified varieties currently dominate our fields. So are our rows of corn plants sitting ducks for any new disease? Not at all. In many important ways, our current agricultural system is completely different from that of 19th century Ireland. Modern agricultural knowledge, techniques, and technology (e.g. pesticides and fertilizers) separate us from an agricultural disaster of that kind. As we now know, any pesticides (even organic ones that were around at the time of the Irish famine) can kill late blight and therefore could’ve helped prevent the disaster.

As a 2009 study of Peruvian farmers shows, the adoption of a disease-resistant potato variety can increase yields, as well as reduce the use of pesticides and therefore their cost to farmers and the environment. Clearly, the use and preservation of diverse crop varieties could build resilience in our food system and help us decrease the use of chemical inputs. However, our current crop varieties and approach to farming make for a food system that is in no way “vulnerable,” despite their lack of diversity.

Monocultures are ubiquitous now as our food system has moved away from subsistence farming toward commodity crops. These large monocultures can be pollutive and in my opinion unsustainable. I think that diversifying crops and varieties could help to do the same job as modern chemical inputs and reduce their use while preserving this important “genetic resource.” As we saw with the UglyRipes though, this change must be preceded by a change in our policy and mindset toward unconventional varieties, especially if we want the change to occur on the large scale farms that make up the majority of our food production. Who knows, maybe the Procaccis have shown that trying out a new variety can even have economic benefits which appeal to the more self-interested corporations out there? Others are hopefully soon to catch on.



Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


How Can We Bring Real Change to Our Food System? Three Ideas

I try to write on here about the big issues and controversies, and after all that information, there is always the same question to ask: what can we do about it? So in this post I’ll give some of my ideas, which upon first look may seem a bit vague or open-ended but only because everyone must take these thoughts in their own personal directions. As I am constantly saying, there is no one easy answer to all the problems with our food system. So here are my thoughts on what we can do to reclaim this industry. It is after all our food system.

1. Choose a diet that reflects your personal beliefs about what defines sustainable agriculture. I won’t tell you to go vegan or to buy only grass-fed beef or to eat all the animal products you want. I won’t tell you to avoid GMOs or to support the technology. I will write about my own opinions but in the end, these are your beliefs and your choices. All I’m saying is that it’s important to apply your beliefs to your every-day life. Maybe you want to take a weekly trip to the farmers market or start a garden to grow your own food. Maybe you want to avoid factory-farmed animal products or anything with palm oil in it. But it is important to realize that our diet is defined by what we do eat and what we don’t eat.

We have to support the products and producers we trust and avoid the ones that we don’t. If we each start to eat based on what we know and believe, the food system will slowly start to change to reflect our choices. As big and powerful as they seem in comparison to us, these big food companies must adjust to what the consumers want. And it is easy to find real examples of this change. When Wal-Mart decided to source its milk entirely from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone, the decision was based on consumer demand. When organic farming grew from nothing to a 30 billion dollar industry, it was because of the individual choices of consumers. (See the figure below.) Clearly, we have real power in our hands.

Graph from the USDA

Check out this video to hear what farmer Joel Salatin has to say about changing our food system for the better. Though Salatin speaks specifically about eating locally grown food, his message about active participation applies to any     dietary or lifestyle choices. I agree with Salatin that in some ways the current problems with our food system are caused by a “crisis in participation.” But we are the participants and this is our crisis to fix.

2. Constantly share, learn, and listen to others’ perspectives. In looking for new thoughts and ideas on the big issues, we will find the information necessary to inform our actions and choices. When we start to think deeply about how our dietary choices affect the environment, we will then encounter new ideas and perspectives. It’s an awesome, self-reinforcing cycle.

Five years ago I didn’t understand why anyone would be vegetarian. I didn’t want to listen to the opinions of any vegan. After a gradual change in perspective, I now choose not to eat any factory-farmed animal products. I try to think of my current beliefs as only a step along a path. And I know that sounds cheesy but it’s one of my strongest beliefs. We can’t just say “Okay I learned that x is bad so I’m not going to eat x any more and that’s it. Now I’m done learning and have done all I can.” We are never done learning. We have to question everything until we understand it fully. It easy to look for a quick fix, but that may mean a simplification of the issues and a misunderstanding of the whole truth.

When we can sit down and have an honest discussion with others while both teaching and learning, we will all become better informed. We will become more aware, more educated, and in turn more motivated to enact change.

3. For some issues that may seem out of reach, contribute to organizations you believe in. As powerful as our every day choices are, they can’t cover everything. For whatever reason, it may be impossible to support a certain organization with our every-day purchases. I remember doing a research project to try to answer the question: how can US consumers support sustainable agriculture and land use in Indonesia? Indonesia is an incredibly biodiverse, fertile, and agriculturally important country: the US imports many of its crops (namely palm oil) that make their way into our food. Still, our consumer choices here can’t completely fix their food system. So how can we help? After doing some research, I discovered Seal Your Cup, a division of Rainforest Alliance which helps small farmers grow crops in a way that is more sustainable for the farmers and the land. You can also support the cause by buying coffee or chocolate labelled with the Rainforest Alliance seal (below). Of course donations still help if you can’t find those products at the store.

In order for a product to bear this seal, it must be sourced from a farm whose practices are approved by the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

While reading about the potentially sustainable use of GMOs in developing countries, I learned about AGRA . This foundation that is financed by Bill Gates works to educate, connect, and provide materials (like high-yield seeds) to farmers in different African countries. Like Seal Your Cup, the NGO essentially brings power and leverage away from distributers to the farmers themselves. If you’re looking for an organization that’s closer to home, maybe you want to check out FarmAid. If you want to support the humane treatment of farm animals, you could give to an organization like Compassion Over Killing. Whatever the cause, someone out there is working hard to do the things we wish we could if we had the time and commitment. They definitely deserve our support and appreciate whatever we can give.


PS: I know that in this post I have provided very little detail as to the specific work of these organizations (and I should definitely do some more research myself). For that reason, I strongly encourage you to research tons of organizations more deeply before deciding who you want to support.