In the process of doing research for an article we’re writing about various aspects of grass-finished beef and our food system, a brilliant colleague of ours told me, “you’ve got to talk to some pathologists and nutrition scientists I know.”
As much as I’d love to divulge who these interviewees are and what agencies they work for, they requested anonymity due to “the current political climate.” For simplicity, we’ve collectively referred to the interviewees as “Jane,” and arranged the excerpts into a single narrative.
The following are questions and answers from a series of rather wide-ranging interviews about our food system with “Jane” that we thought were so interesting, they warranted their own article (we’ll post a separate grass-finished beef article later). Links are provided to various research studies, news articles, and books referenced in the interviews in case you want to read further on a particular subject:
Excerpts From Interviews With Pathologists & Nutrition Scientists About Our Food System
Responding to questions about recent pandemics:
“Chance favors the prepared mind. In today’s world, the CDC is what stands between you and a total chaos of pandemics. The CDC is the reason ebola didn’t spread in Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) is a phenomenal and necessary organization, but it was unable to effectively control the spread of ebola in Africa for far too long. It was the CDC who ultimately stepped in and kept ebola from becoming a worldwide pandemic.
Closer to home, Zika now has the potential to become catastrophic for people living in our hemisphere. We need a strong, bipartisan approach to dealing with these emergent public health threats, but we’re seeing a real inability to act. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to deal with these diseases before they’ve spread and become a pandemic than after.”
On grass-fed beef versus conventional beef raised or finished in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs):
“First, we should start off by making it clear that cows are not adapted to eat grain. They’re ruminants adapted to eating and digesting grasses. When you introduce grain into their diets, it causes all kinds of health problems for them. Anyone interested in that should read Daniel Imhoff’s book, The CAFO Reader.
And anyone who thinks CAFOs are ok, should live near one. They’ll quickly change their minds. We’re all ultimately downstream and downwind from these operations.”
Jane only eats grass-finished beef from farms she’s personally visited so that she knows the quality of their management and animal welfare practices. Why?
“First, do we need to eat meat at all? For optimal health, most people don’t really need to – or at least certainly not in the quantities that we currently are eating it. We can get most everything we need from non-animal products.
There are certainly some exceptions to this rule. For instance, during pregnancy, during the first year of life when mothers are breastfeeding, when women are going through their menstrual cycle, or in older people who really need the B12 that’s abundant in meat (though in some cases, dietary sources may not be sufficient).
Meat is extremely nutrient dense and easy to digest, also making it a perfect food for weaning infants since infants have small stomachs and unique nutritional needs. Many traditional cultures did not use grains when weaning, they typically used meat. It’s also very helpful for young children to eat meat. That’s because it’s really hard to meet children’s iron and zinc requirements without them consuming meat. Iron in animal products is bioavailable, and it’s not so much in non-fermented plant foods. Zinc is also difficult for children and adults to get purely through vegetarian diets since phytates and other antinutritional factors in plants reduce absorption.
But most people should be eating less meat–and the meat they eat should be a much higher quality meat than what they’re eating now. At that point, we reduce the supposed need for all this meat production in the first place, and we can place a much greater emphasis on factors we’re not really calculating right now when sourcing the meats we eat; more of a lifecycle approach… What are the impacts on our ecology – our air, water, soil, and climate system? What are the impacts on our health? Are there animal welfare issues that need to be considered? Cows are smart, social, emotional organisms, so I’d certainly like to think so.”
Eating sick animals and nutritional differences based on livestock management practices:
“As I mentioned earlier, animals raised in CAFOs are not going to be healthy animals, which is why antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals have to be used in those operations just to keep them alive and upright. They’re certainly not healthy by comparison to cattle finished on grass and other forages outdoors in pasture. I generally don’t think it’s a great idea to eat sick animals.”
If your own health is the top concern, there have also been quality research studies demonstrating significant qualitative differences between grass-fed, grass-finished beef and conventionally-raised, CAFO-finished beef: things like more Omega-3s, better fatty acid and antioxidant profiles and the like. Grain-finishing a previously grass-fed cow ruins its health and nutritional benefits within a 90 day window. Personally, I just don’t like the way factory meat tastes and smells.”
What do animals in CAFOs eat?
“They’re fed the cheapest, lowest quality foods possible to fatten them up as quickly as possible. There are things like reused chicken litter (straw and chicken poop) mixed into their food as well, since that’s a cheap byproduct that can be added as a filler.
I recently read that in China, they’re even using artificial sweeteners in their pig feed at high concentrations in order to make the food palatable to the animals, and those chemicals are significantly contributing to their soil and water pollution problems.”
Like us, Jane has noticed something at the grass-finished cattle farms where she sources her meat:
“The ecology on these farms is actually improving. Due to the way they’re managing their cattle in the pastures, they’re having a regenerative effect. Each time I go out there, the pastures are more lush, more biodiverse, there’s more insects and birds and other wildlife. Now, I haven’t measured this in any sort of scientific fashion, but I have witnessed it and it’s remarkable.”
(Side note: you can read about the science of this phenomenon in Judith Schwartz book, Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth.)
On the “efficiency” of CAFOs:
“When I hear people discussing our food system say that CAFOs are more “efficient,” I have to just scratch my head at that notion. Are you sure you’re factoring in the externalities there? How much are you factoring in the drug-resistant superbugs you’re creating? The cost of the health problems you’re causing to people living nearby? Does your efficiency algorithm include sustainability or even regeneration of degraded land? Does it include the possibility that you are eating a sentient animal? I don’t think so.
Also, the loss of livelihood to all the farmers who have been put out of business so a few factory farms can operate and all the economies in rural America that have been decimated by the industrialization of agriculture. Sure food is “cheaper” for now–since we have cheap petroleum to make fertilizer, operate the equipment, and transport the produce or livestock thousands of miles from where it was produced. The actual costs of this efficiency gain are enormous. This is exactly what Bill McKibbens (author of Deep Economy) and others are getting at.
Now, I’m certainly not a vegetarian and something vegetarians need to recognize is that the ecology destroyed to produce a field of soybeans dwarfs any possible environmental damage done by a poorly managed pastured meat operation. They’re not as cute and cuddly as cows, but I’m a fan of lizards, snakes, rodents, insects and all the other life forms that thrive on a pastured beef operation, but don’t stand a chance in a field of soybeans.”
Should we aim to get rid of CAFOs entirely?
“That would be an interesting possibility to explore. We know so much more today than we did when this model got started. It’s premised on so many faulty assumptions and paradigms. We know better now. It wouldn’t be about going backwards because the old days weren’t all that great. We know what we’re doing now can’t possibly scale without wrecking things, so what would going forward without CAFOs as a central part of our food system look like?
How big can a grass-fed, grass-finished operation be? How much food can it produce? How many people can we put back to work doing meaningful jobs if we consider knowledge-based farming jobs part of a knowledge economy and invest in that sector accordingly? At a certain point, I think these farms simply say, “that’s all the meat we can produce.”
An excellent example of an exceptionally well-run yet large grass-fed, grass-finished operation is White Oak Pastures in Georgia, that’s now being passed on to the next generation of children (Will Harris’s daughters).
Feeding people well is different than simply feeding people. How much meat do we actually need? If you analyze it, feeding people has never been a production problem, it’s been a distribution problem.”
The ethics of being an omnivore:
“You have to consider these relationships and what we humans are. I like what Bill Keener at Sequatchie Cove Farm says, which is something like, ‘I raise cows in order to maximize what their natural life can be, then I’m the predator.’ I think that’s the proper perspective. This ‘I’m going to treat the world like a factory’ thing is short-sighted.”
On the continued cultural misinterpretation of what Darwin meant by “survival of the fittest”:
“That has got to be one of the most misinterpreted ideas of all time. Go back and read Darwin’s work. It’s clear that he’s NOT saying ‘fittest = strongest.’ He means organisms survive based on how well they fit into their particular environment. That’s what he observed with the Galapagos finches with various beak structures: some survived because they were better adapted than others to eat certain types of food on a particular island, not because they were stronger. They simply fit into their ecosystem better.”
A huge unspoken danger in certain cooking methods:
“You know, there’s an issue that’s had a fair amount of good scientific literature behind it, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t gotten traction in the media or with the public. Probably because it’s complicated and it has to do with food chemistry. And that issue is how we cook our food. Frankly, I think it’s one of the most critical issues in dietary health today.
If you cook your food at really high temperatures or you burn your meat–or your potatoes or bread for that matter–you drastically increase the carcinogen (cancer causing compounds) load in that food. So you can take an otherwise extremely healthy cut of meat from a grass-fed cow and burn it, and you’ve now made that meat unhealthy. You don’t get that chemical damage at boiling point. I cook all my meat on a bed of onions or other vegetables, which adds antioxidants and moisture to the cooking process, helping to lower the cooking temperature. Probably the best thing you could do is make a slow roast where the meat is slowly cooked at low temperature in broth with vegetables. The numbers I’ve seen show that charred bacon cooked in a skillet or grill is just about the absolute worst.
It is likely that the cardiovascular and other health damage associated with meat consumption isn’t caused by the actual meat or the fat, but the cooking method.”
Note: You can read more about this issue at the National Cancer Institute. If you love your grilled burgers and steaks, here’s an interesting study which found that coating meat in rosemary or rosemary extract prior to grilling reduced the meat’s post-cooked HCA (heterocyclic amines) levels by 30-100%.
On some fascinating aspects of our food system economics and how both political parties are contributing to the mess:
“Let’s talk about ‘fairness’ for a minute. Some people say that everyone has a right to food. I don’t know about that… Do I have a right to have 10 kids? Do farmers have a right to profit? Both political parties and the general population don’t dig into the nuances of their perspectives and think about the impacts those perspectives are having.
As a result, we’re spending $70 billion on SNAP benefits (domestic food aid) each year. My understanding is that about $35 billion of that goes to WalMart, which you don’t really hear much about. We’re not legally allowed to track who benefits so we don’t know for certain. What happens politically is a trade-off: Democrats want SNAP at all costs and Republicans will only sign off on it if it financially benefits their corporate donors. So you end up with this perverse system where poor people are incentivized to buy junk food from politically entrenched American companies and getting sicker and poorer as a result. Is that really the best system we can design?”
The WalMartization of the American economy:
“So here you have WalMart benefitting from these programs while at the same time a high percentage of their employees can’t make a living wage so they’re on SNAP too. The US taxpayer is subsidizing a huge percentage of WalMart’s income and paying for their employees too. Meanwhile, everyone not at the top of the pyramid scheme is paying the price for that.
Let me be clear: I’m not anti-industry. That’s stupid. We need industry. I’m anti-damaging the environment. I’m anti-mistreating people. I’m anti-greed.
When someone says “we have to keep making this cheap food so that people can afford it,” it’s important to point out that the reason they’re poor and don’t have a job might be because they’re being displaced by your giant farms and CAFOs. There’s virtually nobody working in the agricultural sector anymore. Our farms are not creating jobs, unless you count the jobs our food system is creating in the medical field to treat sick people it creates. What are those displaced workers going to do, move to the city and work at WalMart so they can afford to buy cheap food from a CAFO with their SNAP benefits? Go work in a hospital trying to fix all the sick people we’re creating?
Many of these jobs have no purpose or meaning. Nobody feels good about them. We’re creating a society where people can’t derive purpose from their jobs; they’re thin inside. An occupation is something you’re forced to do, a vocation is something you do because your heart drives you to. I see that on the farms where I buy my food. And those farms are also profitable and creating jobs. Nobody else is paying for or subsidizing their externalities because they don’t have any.
And I know some cattle farmers who are going grass-finished with their operations–not because they care one lick about the environment–but because it’s more profitable and it’s a much better business model. It’s something their kids and workers actually want to do too.
Though I think once you dig into the world of grass-fed production, permaculture, agroecology, and these related philosophies, that your ecologic sensibilities awaken. We come to know our place in the chain of life and how valuable respect for the ecology is–from the scale of small insects all the way up to our climate systems. They’re the same system.”
Empathy versus compassion:
“We have to be cautious with empathy. I prefer compassion to empathy. Empathy is easily hacked. When a politician or someone else is trying to manipulate you to believe something or do something, they can show you a single human example that triggers your empathetic nature and you say, “yeah, they’re right, we should do X.” But is that single emotional story telling you the whole picture? Is it supported by the statistics, the broader data? Often not.
Steven Pinker has a great book, Better Angels of Our Nature, that really drives this point home. He touches on nutrition in that book too, and the parts of the book on nutrition are frankly garbage, but his points on empathy are exquisite. He’s a psychologist not a nutritionist, so I forgive him for that.”
Link between diet and increased skin cancer rates:
“Most people have heard of phytochemicals, the beneficial chemicals produced by the fruits and veggies they eat. Well, if the animals you’re eating are healthy and out eating a natural diet, they’re ingesting a ton of phytochemicals too. I think some people even refer to the phytochemicals in animal protein and fat as zoochemicals now.
One of the main reasons I think skin cancer rates are rising so quickly is because our diets are terrible. If you see these pasty white kids that look sick walking around, that’s because of what they’re eating. People aren’t getting optimal amounts of phytochemicals and zoochemicals in their diets. Those compounds actually act like a sunblock when you metabolize them and they also prevent the free radicals triggered by too much sun exposure from causing molecular damage. You want to boost your natural sunblock before you go to the beach? Eat a pile of high quality beets and carrots and dark chocolate first.”
Note: Read more about this topic at the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Why do you care? What motivates you?
“I like the word “nourishment” a lot. How we treat each other, our farms, our animals, comes down to nourishment.
I’m in it for my children, and all the kids sitting in the school cafeteria with them because they’re all our children. Even though I bitch about how many children people are having, once they’re here, they’re all our children.”
We think the ideas and information presented by experts interviewed for this article are vitally important to the future of our food system, our country, and our world. The biggest question we’re left with is not “how can we feed the world,” rather it’s “what kind of world do we want to feed?” We’re disheartened by reductive approaches to food production that externalize their true costs, thus resulting in ravaged ecosystems, rampant animal abuse, and the most obese population in human history. We think there are better ways to address the systemic challenges we all face, and we encourage you to think deeply about how your forks, dollars, and votes shape the future we’re creating together.