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.

Innovative Agricultural Methods Mimic Nature

Nowadays I think a lot of our food choices are defined by labels: is this apple certified organic? Was this chicken “free-range” and “humanely-raised” on a family-owned farm? Though labels are definitely helpful and important, in this post I want to point out that truly good farming might defy a label or a certain list of requirements. It is an entire holistic approach. And often the correct approach takes after nature in some way. This approach is effective because nature’s cycles are efficient, sustainable, and waste-free, which is exactly what we are looking for in farming. One example is Permaculture, which you can read about in my earlier post. Not only are these methods fascinating, I think they have a lot of potential for growth if applied to our current conventional agriculture model. One such method is management intensive grazing.

Management intensive grazing or MIG is the name for a variety of methods of rotating livestock on separate patches of grass (also known as paddocks). This might sound kind of boring but I promise it’s pretty cool! Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms famously implements MIG with his cattle. In this method, different paddocks are sectioned off by electric fencing so that cows only graze in one area for a certain number of days at a time. Cattle rotate between paddocks at a precisely calculated time based on the number of animals and size of the paddocks among other things. It may not seem incredibly innovative or complex, but there is a lot of science behind the technique. It offers many benefits to the land and animals.

In letting cows find their own food, fertilize the ground with their waste, and roam around with lots of room, farmers avoid costs and inputs like feed, fertilizer, and antibiotics. These benefits are similar to those of regular old grazing, but because the system is controlled and managed so precisely, the benefits are maximized to get the most out of a given area of land.

Grass-fed beef is often hailed as a sustainable alternative to more conventionally grown beef, but critics point out its huge space requirements.  They claim that it would be impossible to feed the US on grass-fed beef because it would take too much space, about 35,000 square miles or 10% of US land according to one estimate. However, this estimate does not take into account the space-efficiency of MIG. With MIG, Joel Salatin can raise 85 cows on 100 acres, which is about 1.2 acres per cow, much better than the 2.5 acres per cow that the above figure was based on.

How can we fit more cows on the land by just moving them around? In rotating cattle through different paddocks, the animals are forced to eat grasses that might not be their favorite. They therefore get the most food out of a given area. Usually a cow eats the young, fresh grass closest to its comfy spot in the shade and ignores much of the rest. In a conventional system, each cow may need a few acres of land but it doesn’t eat all of the grass on those few acres, only 30-40% according to this paper. Though I can’t provide an exact number, I’m sure the figure is much higher on intensively grazed land.

Since the farmer is making the cows move around and eat differently, MIG might seem to go against the natural behavior and diet of the cows. Yet the cows’ diversified diet and increased movement is surely beneficial to them. And when MIG and other agricultural systems copy nature, they can’t do so exactly and completely because farmers are still aiming for production and practicality. In nature every loop feeds back into itself, but on our farms we take out the finished product to eat or use. That finished product is the goal of the endeavor so we can’t forget about it in the quest to mimic nature.

In subsistence farming, a family can effectively become part of the farm food chain because it produces only to feed itself. The loop is contained. But otherwise, and especially if a farmer is growing food for hundreds of people, the farm or pasture differs inherently from its wild counterpart because it extracts and distributes that finished product. The farmer must tweak nature to find a balanced technique that produces for us and still keeps the land and creatures healthy.

The use of cows’ waste to fertilize the land helps illustrate this balance. In a conventional feedlot, cows are so concentrated that their waste becomes a pollutive problem. But what can be toxic in such large amounts is healthy in more moderated amounts. Cowpies are a natural fertilizer for the grass and help return nutrients to the land. On conventionally grazed land, the cows’ waste is enough to benefit the land but not overwhelm it. And in MIG, with more cows per acre (known as a higher stocking rate), the cows’ waste is more concentrated to optimally fertilize the land. Whereas the conventional feedlot sacrifices the health of the environment to achieve its finished product most cheaply, MIG balances the need for productivity with a need to keep the land healthy.

MIG mimics nature in that it is designed to take advantage of the fascinating and surprisingly complex relationship between grazing animals and grass. This process starts when the cow takes a bite of grass. The grass plant likes to keep an equal balance of leaves and roots so it will shed some of its roots to make up for the lost leaves. In turn these roots decay into fertile soil, and provide room for air, water, and a variety of creatures which are all beneficial to the land. We wouldn’t see these benefits had the cow not eaten that bit of grass. The grass (and the land) are actually better off with the cow around. Yet this process would end if the cow were to come back, take another bite, and prevent the grass’s re-growth. Thus the cow must be moved to another paddock in order for the grass to recover, just as a field may lie fallow to replenish its soil’s nutrients.

MIG also increases the diversity of grass species in a field. Cows may eat and cut down taller grasses and in the process make room for shorter varieties. But the cow must be moved off the paddock before they can decimate any one species (as may happen on conventionally grazed land). This precise system helps to create a balance of several different species, each important to the function and fertility of the land. With this balance, we can maximize the land’s use of sun and water. For example, drought-resistant species can thrive in drier times and seasonal varieties can ebb and flow during different parts of the year so that the field’s grasses are making the most of the present conditions and resources. Keeping every patch of ground always covered in grass prevents weed growth and erosion to maintain a long-lasting fertile topsoil.

As Michael Pollan puts it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the grazing of ruminants, when managed properly, actually builds new soil from the bottom up.” Though many studies show that mismanaged grazing can severely damage land, we can see that grazing indeed has a positive effect on the soil if managed properly. I find it fascinating that the most efficient and sustainable way to graze land includes the use of electric fences when the free-for-all roaming of cows may seem more natural. We might not picture tons of electric fences when we think of happy cows out on pasture, but in this case a technology so seemingly unnatural is indeed our best tool to keep nature healthy. Go MIG!

I was originally planning on talking about a number of other techniques like aquaponics and conservation tillage, but there is so much to talk about with MIG that I got a bit carried away. I’ll continue to talk about innovative farming techniques in another post. Thanks for listening to me talk about cows eating grass for so long. Below are my sources for this post:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


TED talk from Jonathan Foley: “The Other Inconvenient Truth”

Recently I re-watched a TED talk by professor Jonathan Foley about global agriculture. I found that in his talk Foley voiced a lot of my larger beliefs about farming, why it is important to examine, and how we can change it for the better. When I first watched the presentation I was thinking “Yes! These are my thoughts exactly!” I highly recommend the talk and you can check it out here.

I like this talk because it is practical and scientific. Foley starts out by framing the issue in a larger global context, showing how humans have come to dominate our planet. This large lens is fitting for such an important issue. I think it stresses the underlying truth about farming and environmental issues: all of this comes down to simple self-preservation. No matter what, we need food just as we need nature and all the creatures that make up our environment.

Foley has researched the global environmental effects of agriculture in depth. With this knowledge, he looks pragmatically to the future to see what questions arise and how we can answer them. He doesn’t get caught up in the sometimes myopic mindset of “local-organic-will-save-the-world.” It’s easy to go down that road when considering the problems with our current agricultural system, but Foley’s perspective is that of a professor and a scientist. He is going over the big important issues.

Foley uses stunning and shocking pictures to point out the long term effect of farming on our environment. According to Foley’s estimates, agriculture uses 40% of our land, 70% of our fresh water, and contributes to 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. When I presented my senior project, I included similar figures to explain how important farming is to the future of our environment. As Foley points out, farming lies at the intersection of many environmental issues: energy, water, and land usage; climate change; biodiversity loss and habitat destruction; as well as air and water pollution.

Towards the end of the talk Foley gets to a really important point: there is no single simple answer to all these issues. Foley and I (and hopefully most people) are really in agreement here. This idea is central to my perspective on agriculture and I brought it up in the conclusion of my senior project presentation. Farming raises so may complex questions that there could not possibly be a single cure-all solution. I like the picture below quite a lot and I think it gets the idea across.

(credit to this blog for the image)

Though Foley’s proposition for a new type of agriculture that combines the best of many models is a bit vague, maybe that’s kind of the point. It’s all open-ended and we don’t know what it’s going to look like. As Foley says, we have to “reduce the controversy” and “increase the collaboration” in order to find out. His video provides some more concrete examples: economic incentives for farmers, new agricultural methods like drip irrigation and conservation tillage, as well as a smarter diet on the consumer’s side (this is where we non-farmers come in!). There are lots of things we can do and with this blog I hope to point out some of them.

My next post will cover a number of cool new agricultural methods and technologies that have the potential to help solve some of our current problems in farming. And after that I’ll try to write one that covers all the different actions we can take to make a real difference in these issues.


The Potential of Golden Rice

First off, I realize I haven’t posted in a while but I have been working on this post for a long time and it got pretty long so please don’t be scared off by that. I promise it’s thorough! And now, for the information, thoughts, all that good stuff:

Golden rice is a variety of rice rich in beta-carotene (also written as β-carotene), a substance which the human body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important vitamin and helps with vision and immune function among other things. Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes their orange color and is responsible for the color and name of golden rice.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety. (Picture from this Forbes article)

A single bowl of golden rice provides 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A needs. The rice could potentially help children in developing countries where vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and increased vulnerability to a number of diseases. Since many of these developing countries are in Asia where rice is often a staple, golden rice could be substituted for less nutritional rice to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency. According to a 2011 study, supplementing vitamin A can reduce child mortality of all causes by 24%. And golden rice can play a key part in alleviating vitamin A deficiency in the future.

At first golden rice sounds like an amazing solution to a number of problems, but unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Here comes the controversial part: golden rice is genetically modified. Scientists had to manipulate the genome of the rice plant to make it produce beta-carotene in its grains. (You can earn more about genetically modified organisms and my thoughts on them in my earlier post.) It is the genetic modification of golden rice that led a group of protesters to destroy a test plot of the rice in the Philippines earlier this month.

Though I disagree with the protester’s actions and reasoning, the event did have one positive outcome. It got people thinking and talking about golden rice in all its controversy. And people like Michael Pollan had a lot to say. Most of the scientific community strongly support golden rice. On the other hand, environmental groups like Greenpeace fight violently against the development of golden rice largely because of their dogmatic opposition to all GMOs. That said, I think they do bring up some good points that should be addressed.

First of all, is this solution effective and efficient? It’s true that golden rice doesn’t address the root problem that contributes to malnutrition in developing countries: poverty. But poverty is a complicated problem rooted in deep-seated political and societal factors. Long-term solutions to poverty are therefore complicated and require huge gradual changes. In the meanwhile though, I think that golden rice provides effective short-term aid, especially compared with other potential solutions.

Currently, some programs give vitamin A supplements (called mega doses) to children in developing countries twice yearly. Though this only costs $1 per child per year, there are several millions of children who need this help and it is a recurring cost. As economist/scientist Alexander Stein points out, many logistical problems arise when we consider the “lack of qualified medical personnel” in these countries and that “children in remote rural areas or in urban slums may not be reached and older children and adults are not covered at all.”

Golden rice on the other hand would be given to farmers for free. After that single first handout, the crop would likely spread naturally as the farmer replants the seeds the next season and distributes the rice and seeds to others. The technology gets to many people with little recurrent costs.

Some may make the argument that golden rice is just a marketing tool, something to help the PR of big businesses like Syngenta (the company that initially contributed intellectual property to the development of golden rice royalty free). It looks good to consumers that these companies seem to be working on such a admirable humanitarian cause. I agree that these companies may play the “we’re helping all the poor kids” card too often. However, the humanitarian intentions and origins of the golden rice project are undeniable. Golden rice was developed by two professors, the Swiss Ingo Potrykus and German Peter Beyer, not by any agribusiness giant with a stake in the American seed industry. The original idea for the plant came from a discussion in 1984 at the International Rice Research Institute (or IRRI), the NGO that is currently testing plots of golden rice.

The project has been in the works for 20 years or so. As Greenpeace estimates, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on golden rice, much of which game from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many people and organizations like Greenpeace often doubt golden rice because of how long it has taken to develop. However, the project might be coming along faster if it weren’t from the harmful opposition of groups like Greenpeace itself.

Also, it is easy to understand why the process would take this much time and money. A lot needs to happen between the moment the idea is introduced and the moment people can start growing and eating the crop. It took about 10 years to find the right gene to trigger beta-carotene production in rice and to figure out how to implant this gene into the rice genome. In 2005, Syngenta introduced golden rice 2, with a higher amount of beta-carotene than the first prototype. After this, studies and tests must be done to see if the genetic engineering caused other changes in the plant’s nutrition, growth, or disease-susceptibility among other things. Lastly the palatability and effectiveness of golden rice as a vitamin A supplement must be tested. And it has been tested, with positive results.

One 2012 study on 68 children showed that “β-carotene in [golden rice] is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children” (Tang et al.). The children’s blood was tested to deduce the level of vitamin A  present after eating spinach, golden rice, or pure beta-carotene in oil. There are debates about the validity of this study because the children tested weren’t vitamin A deficient as the target population is. That said, I still find this early study promising as it provides evidence that humans can metabolize the beta-carotene in golden rice.

From my view, the time that it is taking to fully test the crop counters some of Greenpeace’s arguments about the unintended consequences of genetic modification on the genome of the rice plant, the environment, and the health of the people eating the food. In a 2012 Greenpeace report, Though some of these are valid scientific concerns, I have faith that the people at IRRI are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the crop before distributing it (which will likely happen in the next two years).

One of Greenpeace’s concerns is that golden rice seed and pollen could contaminate the stock of traditional rice varieties in nearby fields. Rice is wind-pollinated so cross-pollination is common and as the Greenpeace report points out, there are already records of rice contamination (from non-GMO varieties). This contamination is a real possibility. For me though, the potential for good (relieving vitamin A deficiency across developing countries) outweighs the potential for bad (the possible contamination of the seed of traditional rice varieties).

Overall, despite some downsides of the crop, I support the continuing study and development of golden rice alongside author Michael Pollan, scientist/economist Alexander Stein, and environmental activist Mark Lynas.

If you agree with me about the potential of golden rice, I would urge you to sign this petition to show your support of the crop. Whichever side you’re on, make sure to check out my sources at the bottom for more information. 

I find golden rice fascinating because it represents for me the positive potential of GMOs when they are developed in the right hands for the right reasons. I maintain my position against other GMOs because the majority of these crops are completely different than golden rice in every way: they were created with different intentions by companies with notoriously bad business practices. The place these GM crops hold in America’s pesticide-ridden large-scale agriculture and the industry that backs it is virtually the opposite of the place that golden rice could hold for citizens and societies of developing countries. Instead of paying the greedy, monopolistic seed companies (who are often the same as the pesticide companies) year after year as some American farmers do, farmers in developing countries could save their golden rice seed for free and they wouldn’t be under the control of any corporation.

In fact, my main opposition to GMOs comes from how they are used currently, not the process of genetic modification itself. And I believe that golden rice is being used in a truly beneficial way. It’s not perfect nor is it going to solve the root problems that cause vitamin A deficiency, but I think it’s a great crop, a great idea, and a great start.

I know I bashed the big seed companies pretty hard earlier so once again I would encourage you to check out my earlier posts on GMOs as well as other sources of information and different perspectives before forming your own opinion on GMOs. The issue is so complex and it is always best to hear from both sides.


The Alexander Stein writing I mentioned:

The Greenpeace writing I mentioned:

Other favorite articles:


All my other sources:

The Process Food Takes to Get to Us

Over the last five weeks, I have been teaching at Peninsula Bridge, a fun academic summer program for under-privileged kids. I taught a “Food, Gardening, Cooking” elective at Bridge in which my students and I attempted to get closer to our food by making and growing it ourselves.

In the first class, I handed every kid a chocolate chip cookie but instructed them not to eat it until later. First, we worked together to brainstorm the different ingredients that made up the cookies in front of us: flour, eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and milk (in the chocolate chips). These store-bought cookies had palm oil in them as well though you might not add that to your home-baked ones.

Next, I sketched up a map of the world on the chalkboard and we went through every ingredient, brainstorming to identify its source. Each time we figured out where something was grown or raised, we plotted it on the map and drew a line from the source to the Bay Area. (Though really they all stopped by L.A. first since Trader Joe’s distributes its food from Monrovia, CA according to the label on the package.)

As the group worked and I contributed a little bit of earlier research, we began to put everything together. Flour comes from wheat probably grown in the midwest, eggs from chickens most likely also raised in the midwest, sugar from sugar cane in Brazil. Salt is harvested from the ocean (I chose the Atlantic off the east coast of the US, based on that tiny bit of research). The chocolate in the chocolate chips came from the beans of the cocoa tree which are often imported from Northwest Africa and the milk in the chips came from California cows (most likely). The Vanilla extract came from pods of the Vanilla orchid possibly from Madagascar among other countries. The palm oil was extracted from oil palm plantations in Indonesia or Malaysia. The coconuts were probably grown from Indonesia or another Southeast Asian country as well. And after all this collective thought, I told everyone that they could now enjoy their chocolate chip cookie as long as they ate slowly and savored it, appreciating all that went into producing it.

Tracing these ingredients back to their beginning was pretty eye-opening for everyone. The map ended up looking pretty crazy, but even beyond the sheer number of miles travelled, we thought about all the energy, resources, plants, animals, and people that went into that little cookie. I explained that this exercise wasn’t meant to shock or discourage them. From my point of view, feeding seven billion people is necessarily going to take a lot of energy and resources. But we can still take the process into our own hands to get to know it a little better. And that is what we set out to do.

Each kid planted vegetable seeds in recycled egg cartons and had a chance to watch them grow. Together, we learned the art of making bread from a friend of mine who is an expert in the subject. We made pesto pizza from scratch (except we bought the cheese). We learned about keeping chickens and the difference between home-grown and store-bought eggs. The former have stronger shells, brighter, firmer, more nutritious and flavorful yolks all because the chickens have a more diverse diet.  We cooked up our own eggs (courtesy of my five chickens). I even brought in my chicken Misty so everyone could see where their eggs were coming from.

I wanted the class to be fun and I saw quickly that anything remotely lecture-based would not hold their attention or gain their enthusiasm. So, I tried to make everything as hands-on as possible. We made and grew whatever the kids wanted to. And through all this, I tried to always remind the kids of the process going on in front of our eyes that we had helped facilitate. Sometimes we took flour, water, yeast, and other ingredients to make bread or added sunlight, water, and soil to grow plants. When we were baking, I would say that “only a few minutes ago this bread dough was just raw ingredients. Now they’ve combined to make this amazing and delicious thing.” I would tell them all to look at the tiny lettuce seed in my hand. And I would ask, “Can you believe that with a little time and some energy from the sun, this will give us tons of awesome veggies?” It’s so fascinating to think of the humble beginnings at which everything starts and to watch the process unfold in a series of little transitions until we have our finished product, delicious and fresh.

Sometimes the process is simple: I can walk down to the creek near my house and pick blackberries to eat right then or juice the the apples from the tree in my backyard and drink the juice that day. In both cases, the plant grows and I pick it: no cooking or processing (except for juicing) or shipping. Sometimes the process is more complex: feeding grass and grain to a cow as it grows, slaughtering and butchering the cow, processing and shipping its meat, and eventually cooking it.

If the process is shorter and simpler, it may often be more energy efficient and lest wasteful. It also may be easier to take into your own hands. It is more straightforward to grow your own tomatoes than to raise your own cow. And for the people who have the time and motivation to do it, this process can be really rewarding and enlightening. On an individual level, it can even have less impact on the environment. In eating my own chickens’ eggs, I am avoiding any factory farmed eggs (as I pointed out in my last post).

However, it is in my opinion a mistake to think that taking a simple process into our own hands is going to solve everything that is wrong with our food system. Many people out there rely on the long complex systems like those involved in producing meat, cheese, or highly processed foods. It is true that we can through different changes in policy bring more whole foods to those who wouldn’t ordinarily eat them. But still I think that realistically there will always be a demand and necessity for those foods which come from the long and complex processes that no citizen can realistically take into their own hands. After all, those are often some of the most calorie and nutrient-dense foods because we can combine many ingredients (and their flavors) into a single yummy product.  I think that the true answer to many problems with our food system lies in changing these processes to make them more efficient and sustainable. And that is the hard part, the really hard part. But it all starts with just knowing and appreciating all that went into that chocolate chip cookie.

On another note, this is the 50th blog post! The blog has been around for about two years now. I’m excited to keep it going for a long time.