I always knew the “battle” would not come from the vegan crowd, but from corn fed middle-America and all the entangling alliances therein. The recent Fox “News” piece (Fair? Balanced? Objective?) on grass fed vs grain fed beef was likely the first shot across the bow of what will be quite an interesting showdown between Old Media, Government and mega-corporations like Monsanto on the one side and New Media (internet, blogging, Facebook), self governance and decentralized information, goods and services on the other side. The driving force behind this skirmish is nothing more than a full accounting of our food supply and the REAL costs of doing business.
Check out the following items, then let’s reconvene for a discussion:
Second: The rough transcript of the above video.
Third: The abstract Prof. Capper used to justify her scientific positions.
Before we get to the good stuff you may be wondering who is “Porn Stache #1” given John Stossel’s 2nd place finish. Well, that goes to Fox “News” other mustachioed Man on the Scene, Geraldo Rivera. I’m not sure what the story is but Fox appears to be the next career move in the post 20/20 life of investigative reporters. Weird.
So, back on point, the video opens with a sing-song and condescending John Stossel talking to us about the perceived benefits of grass fed beef. In classic Fox “News” fashion he even manages to mention God in the first 10 seconds. Given his tone you are not left wondering where his bias is. He mentions “perceived” benefits of grass fed meat, including the notion that it tastes better than corn fed meat. To “test” this controversial subject John asks the studio audience to taste test four platters of hamburger. Supposedly* (I say supposedly because this is the same thing Stossel did in his transcript piece here in which he says “Restaurants serving burgers supposedly made from grass fed beef…” It’s a crafty little tactic to instill doubt in every element of the story. Fair, balanced and objective? Right.) two platters are grass fed, two are corn fed. John uses his same sing-song, leading tone of voice to arrive at the idea that there is not a significant difference in the taste of the meat. I’ll buy that, especially with regards to hamburger, but watch that video segment again from about 45 seconds to 1:25. Now look at this:
This is a screen capture of the video, and look at the meat! RARE baby. That is actually how I love my hamburgers and steaks, heck, I even do a fair amount of tartar type meals, but John…are you trying to kill your studio audience? One should NEVER consume beef that rare due to the potential of fatal E. coli exposure. Ironically however, corn fed meat appears to be the source of this acid resistant, potentially fatal strain of E.coli. Corn (all grains actually) raise ruminant stomach acid production, creating a selective pressure for acid resistant strains of E. coli. Now, one can certainly get this variety of E.coli from grass fed meat, but the source appears to be the grain fed herds. John is a decent actor, but I suspect if he had to relay these facts to the families of the ~200 people who die in the US every year due to E.coli exposure, he might receive a chair over the head like Geraldo did many years ago.
I love Your Accountant
At about 1:30 in the video John references the following quote from Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article “Power Steer”:
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
Stossel dismisses the whole “fossil fuel” story with the following:
“That’s because farmers burn gasoline to ship the corn.” Emphasis mine.
It’s obvious Fox “News”, John Stosssel and Enron all share an accountant, because things do not fracking add up here. You see, the fuel of moving corn around is a tiny fraction of the WHOLE story. Pollan actually makes a good accounting of this complexity in his (selectively quoted) article. Nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers (keep your eyes open for those, we’ll revisit them) are necessary to grow the corn. The modeling of these systems gets remarkably complex but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations digs into the topic with a little more gusto that John does. Here is part of the introduction for the UN’s “Framework for Calculating Fossil Fuel use in Livestock Systems”
“Intensification of animal production systems has required external inputs in order to achieve the high yields expected from the investment on facilities, equipment and breeding stock.
In contrast to integrated mixed farming where most of the resources including energy used to come from the farm itself, intensive production requires a variety of outside inputs, which in one way or another have required fossil fuels.
Fossil energy is used for the production of feeds (land preparation, fertilizers, pesticides, harvesting, drying, etc.), their bulk transport (rail and/or sea freight), storage (ventilation), and processing (milling, mixing, extrusion, pelleting, etc.) and their distribution to individual farms.
Once on the farm, and depending on location (as in the climate), season of the year and building facilities, more fossil energy is needed for the movement of feeds from the storage to the animal pens; for control of the thermal environment (cooling, heating or ventilation); and for animal waste collection and treatment (solid separation, aerobic fermentation, drying, land applications, etc.).
Transport of products (meat animals to abattoirs, milk to processing plants, eggs to storage), processing (slaughtering, pasteurization, manufacture of dairy products), storage and refrigerated transport also require fossil fuels.
Finally, the distribution to the consumer and the final cooking process may also require expenditures of fossil fuels.
The objective of the present analysis was to establish a methodology for calculation of direct and indirect consumption of fossil fuels for the various steps required for the production, processing, marketing and cooking of products of animal origin.
This methodology can be used to calculate (fossil) energy costs of animal products in various systems.”
Now, If I were in an interview with Stossel the Straw Man would be getting set on fire by now. The Fox “News” refrain would be that I’m an environmental wacko, who is anti-American and anti-business. Uh, NO, I’m not. I love business, LOVE America and I strongly dislike most elements of government and think it should be smaller, and less influential. Ungfortuantely, these are not the rallying points for most American Conservatives.
If given a chance I’d like to ask John Stossel a few things:
- How much money is put into government subsidies of corn and other grains?
- What are the relationships between Oil, Corn, and Pharmaceuticals?
- Do subsidies not count as “welfare?” If not, how so? Or does it no count if they are advertisers for Fox?
- Why no discussion of small, decentralized, family owned operations like PolyFace Farms which are NOT government subsidized, are sustainable (read: full accounting) and are more productive per acre than just about any other system on earth?
It’s just a nightmare world in some ways. Al Gore quoting Lefties who want electric cars, but no idea where that electricity is coming from (nor an accurate accounting of the costs in producing those electric/hybrid cars) or the Republican Right that seems to like business…but only if it’s large and has Oil, Pharmaceutical and subsidized food production ties. No transparency and accounting techniques that find real world applications for the square root of -1.
Well, Hello Prof. Capper!
- Update: Prof. Capper shot me a link to her Paper at midnight last night. I’ll read it and update the post later based on that.
- Update 2: The paper Prof. Capper forwarded to me relates to the us of recombinant bovinesomatotropin (rbST) use in dairy production. It’s kinda funny, rbST went through a public image make over similar to what MRI’s experienced. MRI’s used to be called NMRI (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging) but the nuclear piece made people skittish, so it was trimmed to the more benign sounding MRI. Most folks do not know that somatotropin also goes by the name “growth hormone.” Recombinant bovine GROWTH HORMONE makes people think they will grow three legs if they eat meat or dairy from treated animals. Yesh. Anyway, the gist of the paper is that the application of rbST increases milk yields and decreases both Nitrogen and phosphorous due to these nutrients being sequestered in the protein fraction of the milk. No problems with any of that, but it is NOT a paper that I’d be able to use to justify a globally sustainable meat/dairy production scenario given the lack of complete accounting of the inputs. There is absolutely no doubt that feeding cows corn and hitting them with rbST will increase both meat and dairy yields, but this does NOT address the sustainability issue. I have a friend in the diary scene and they only used rbST for a brief time due to undesirable effects such as decreased productivity over the long haul, so even that element seems to be a bit of a wash.So, keep this in mind as you read the rest of this piece and thank you to Prof. Capper for getting the paper to me.
- Update 3- In the paragraph below I wrote that I sent Prof. Capper 2 emails, in fact the 2nd email was still in my draft folder, so Prof. Capper did reply to the first email. Prof. Capper has declined to comment on the post, but sincere thanks for her time nonetheless.
At about 2:30 in the video we meet Dr. Jude Capper of Washington Statue University. This is an abstract of some work Dr. Capper cites for her position in improved efficiency of milk/meat production using the input of corn. No specific details are offered in the abstract, but a paper is apparently (supposedly?) in process. I contacted Prof. Capper twice about details of the paper, and about the potential of reading her stochastic model, and have received no response. I’ve actually put the posting of this blog off for more than a week in the hopes I’d be able to look at that data and get some sense of her accounting. Alas, Prof. Capper appears to respond to men with a stache better than my clean shaven self, so I’ll just have to run with the video and what we can glean from the abstract. In the video Prof. Capper makes a few claims:
- Grain feeding is better land use
- Grain feeding uses less water
- Grain feeding produces less carbon foot print (since when did Fox “News” care about carbon footprint?! I’m honestly not a fan of the idea either, but c’mon)
Prof. Capper justifies these comments, in part by the accelerated time to slaughter for grain fed vs grass fed cattle (15 months vs 23 months), but again…what about the water, land and resources that go into the corn production to feed the cattle!? Prof. Capper goes so far as to claim every grass fed cow is as polluting as a car driving on the freeway. Hmm, that had better be an amazing stochastic model, especially in light of what we know with operations such as PolyFace Farms. If oil were limitless, if we neglect all the other side effects of large scale monoculture, business as usual would be fine. Well, other than the antibiotics necessary to keep these animals alive long enough to slaughter (grass fed cows require little if any antibiotics), the downstream destruction of other habitats due to nitrogen/phosphorous run off, and the acid resistant E. Coli, the “business as usual” model is fine and dandy. Speaking of the nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P), this is part of what Prof. Capper uses to justify better efficiency in the current model of meat/dairy production. Here is s snippet from that abstract:
“Furthermore, 2.2-fold increases in N excretion and 3.4-fold increases in P excretion were observed for the 1944 system, which was also associated with considerably higher methane (2.2x) and nitrous oxide (3.3x) emissions per unit of milk produced.”
So, there are some interesting features to this:
- Methane production IS greater in grass fed cattle due to bacterial action on cellulose, but this is also the source of the organic acids which form the backbone of butyric acid and conjugated linoleic acid, good stuff. Again, from the “closed loop” perspective though, this methane represents carbon which was sequestered into the grass to start out with, not formerly sequestered carbon in fossil fuels which are now liberated into the environment in the process of growing corn. And it still begs the question IF the carbon issue matters at all (it reminds me of the fat phobia of the Mcgovern Commission, but I digress.
- Nitrogen and phosphorous excretion is, well, fertilizer. In the closed loop, grass fed model that means the nitrogen and phosphorous stays in the system, especially when biodynamic farming practices (PolyFace Farms) are used. This in contrast to the input of oil based synthetic fertilizers and organophosphates that (shocker) make up the backbone of Monsanto’s Corn-ocoupia of products. Oh, did I forget to mention the co-author of the paper with Prof. Capper, RA Cady, is an employee of the Monsanto Animal Agricultural Group? Fair, Balanced, Objective.
What do other experts in the field of agriculture and meat production have to say on topics like this? Prof. Ricardo Salvador had the following to say with regards to grass fed meat should be “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”
If you have read this blog or listened to the podcast in the past few months you certainly have heard this controversial story…that “Cows Eat Grass.” According to Prof. Capper, we do not need a full thermodynamic accounting of inputs and outputs into systems when we make land/resource use recommendations. Then we have the additional wrinkle that saying things like “Cows Eat Grass” can get you dismissed from positions like the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which is what Prof. Salvador faced in the corn-subsidy rich state of Iowa. Speak the truth, and get bounced.
But wait, there’s more. Under the current program, the nitrogen and phosphorous from both the feedlots AND the synthetic fertilizers go somewhere…downstream. Using that wacky thing called “full accounting” we see a massive “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico due to nitrogenous run-off from non-sustainable farming and meat production practices, severe enough to be comparable to the Gulf oil spill. Add to all this the RIDICULOUS use of ethanol in our fuel and you have even greater impetus to produce (subsidized) corn.
John Stossel, Prof. Capper…I don’t get it, why the lack of full accounting?
Is Grass fed meat healthier?
At 4 minutes into the piece Stossel makes the point that grass fed advocates claim the meat to be healthier than grain fed meat. Prof. Caddy says:
“There is absolutely no scientific evidence based on that.
Absolutely none,” she replied. “There is some very slight difference in fatty acids, for example, but they are so minor that they don’t make any significant human health impact.”
Hmmm. So, if we neglect the E. Coli issue and the fact grass fed meat does not require intensive antibiotic use (thus limiting the production and antibiotic resistant bacteria) we are left with only a ‘slight” difference in fatty acids according to Prof. Capper. I guess the increased amount of vitamin E, CLA, carotenoids and other products in grass fed/wild meat do not amount to much in the grand scheme? Or, again, perhaps this is some convenient accounting on the part of Prof. Capper and Fox “News”, because we get healthier meat, more nutrients and all for less input of resources AND less collateral damage such as killing of one of the most productive fisheries on the planet.
Can it all be “Green?”
You may think from the tone of this piece that I “hate” oil and think we should all go solar and wind powered. No, and no. I’d love to see the US get out of the Middle East, develop our own oil reserves and expand the use of things like natural gas, which we have a lot of. The driver in all this needs to be economics. The problem currently, is the myriad of governmental subsidies hides the real costs of oil and our food. Our current system looks cheap, but the full story is tough to find.
Should we use more solar? Sure, provide tax incentives in sunny areas to prop up that side of the equation. Push for more efficiency as we tend to fritter away about as much energy as we productively use. Fossil fuels are not going away but using them to grow corn, to feed meat, to feed us is a very inefficient system when the full accounting is taken. Nicki and I were in Nicaragua and they had amazingly good meat there. Grass fed is all you can find, and for a good reason: It’s too damn expensive to grain feed the cattle. There are also more efficient critters than cattle. At present we have about 96 million cattle in the US. At the height of population, bison herds in north America were ~70 million. Bison work better than cattle. Just Saying. Much of the grassland that used to see populations of bison roaming are now cornfields. The same cornfields that are sowed with proprietary Monsanto seeds, that then receive proprietary herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Watch the movie King Corn for an interesting window into all this. The plight of cattle in this movie is pretty bad. The critters are dying from the grains they are fed to fatten them for slaughter. Nasty stuff. Nasty in a different way however is the loss of farms due to the encroachment of Monsanto’s patented corn into the field of folks who are still trying to go it on their own and propagate seeds like their fathers and grandfathers did. Monsanto tests the fields for patented genes (which are spread on the wind during pollination), finds them, and then sues for copyright infringement. It sucks, but folks can opt out. These farmers can adopt practices like those seen at PolyFace Farms and take themselves out of that equation, make a good living, restore some semblance of ecological balance and actually help national security because we’d have a food production system that is not tied to unsustainable energy inputs. And it is for this very reason, the fact these farmers COULD opt out and that there is an ever growing number of people who understand the benefits of grass fed meat go far beyond health or improved quality of life for the cattle involved, this is why we saw the Fox “News” piece.
We will NOT change this by going to our politicians, nor the media. But if we make choices with our wallets, we can change all of this. The big players know this, and they are scared. You will see attempts to ban grass fed meat due to “hygiene” issues, you will see attempts to up-end CSA’s and Farmers Markets. The fight is not upon us yet, but it’s not far off.