American Meat—An Inside Look at Sustainable Farming in America
“Thanksgiving is a time when many of us come together and share food and conversation with our family and friends. It’s a time when we celebrate our loved ones, and reflect on that which we are thankful for. In the spirit of the holiday, we are offering our documentary American Meat to you and yours during this special week of Thanksgiving, for free. We hope that it will spark constructive conversations about how we can build a better agriculture in America.
We’re thankful for our farmers, and we’re thankful for you. We hope you enjoy our documentary American Meat, and that you have a wonderful holiday season.” –American Meat
If you put good old-fashioned organically-raised, pasture-fed and finished meat in a nutrition analyzer, you’d find it’s one of the most nutritious foods you can eat.
However, many are still in the dark about the vast differences between Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and organically-raised, grass-fed meats, in terms of nutrient content and contamination with veterinary drugs, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, and disease-causing pathogens.
Differences in the animals’ diets and living conditions create vastly different end products. For example, most CAFO cows are fed grains (oftentimes genetically engineered grains, which make matters even worse), when their natural diet consists of plain grass.
If you’re under the age of 40 or so, and have never spent time on a real farm, chances are you have a rather dim concept of just how different today’s food production is from traditional, time-tested farming practices.
These differences have monumental ramifications for our environment, for the health and well-being of the animals being raised, and for your own health.
There are basically two very different models of food production today. The first, and most prevalent, is the large-scale agricultural model that takes a very mechanistic view toward life, whereas the other – the local, sustainable farm model – has a biological and holistic view.
The featured documentary, American Meat,1 is “a pro-farmer look at chicken, hog and cattle production in America.” The film features full-time organic farmers Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface farms in Virginia; Chuck Wirtz, a life-long hog farmer; and Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, who manages a family farm in North Dakota.
“Beginning with a history of our current industrial system, the feedlots and confinement operations are unveiled, not through hidden cameras, but through the eyes of the farmers who live and work there.
From there, the story shifts to Polyface Farms, where the Salatin family has developed an alternative agricultural model based on rotational grazing and local distribution. Nationwide, a local-food movement of farmers, chefs, and everyday people has taken root.” ~ American Meat2
As a physician, it’s obvious to me – and I’m sure most of you viewing this – that the food you eat plays a major role in your health. Sadly, as a society, we’ve strayed so far from our dietary roots and become so disconnected from our food sources that our health is now in serious jeopardy.
About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods,3 and the health of the average American is a testament to the abject failure of such foods to support good health. It’s a proven fact that factory farmed and processed foods are far more likely to cause illness than unadulterated, organically-grown foods.
Fortunately, more and more people are now beginning to recognize this, and are making efforts to get back to real food – the kind of food grown by the dedicated farmers featured in this film.
The Invention of CAFOs
Chickens, like most animals and humans, depend on sunlight to produce vitamin D, and as such spend a great deal of time outdoors pecking around for bugs, which is their natural diet.
Alas, once farmers realized they could simply add vitamin D and other vitamins and medications to chicken feed, they also realized they no longer had to let the chickens outdoors. And with that the CAFO chicken farm was born…
Chicken CAFO’s took root in the 1950’s, followed by cattle and hog CAFO’s in the 1970’s and ‘80’s respectively. Today, CAFO’s dominate all livestock and poultry production in the US, and gone are hundreds of thousands of small farms that simply could no longer compete in this new market setup.
The intensive animal farming methods of today were developed to increase food production while pushing down prices. And while successful in that respect, it has given rise to a number of significant problems that probably were not considered at the outset, when increasing capacity to feed the sprawling suburbs were foremost on everyone’s mind.
For example, about 95 percent of the eggs produced in the US now come from gigantic egg factories housing millions of hens under one roof. You can only imagine how difficult – if not impossible – it is to keep millions of birds in one location and still produce a product that’s safe to eat.
CAFO’s Promote Food-Borne and Antibacterial-Resistant Disease
Chickens raised in these unsanitary conditions are far more likely to be contaminated with pathogens, and to lay contaminated eggs. In one British study, 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for Salmonella compared to just over 4 percent in organic flocks, and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks.
The problem of contamination is not limited to the eggs these chickens produce, but also to the meat. To combat the potent threat of disease caused by crowded conditions, unnatural diets and inability to roam free, cage-raised chickens have to be given routine doses of antibiotics and other drugs, all of which have serious health implications, including the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans.
It has even been suggested that a growing number of antibiotic-resistant cases of urinary tract infections in women are linked to the overuse of antibiotics in chickens, and their resultant drug-resistant bacteria strains transferring to humans. 4
The lesson here is, the closer you can get to the “backyard barnyard,” the better. You’ll want to get your chickens and eggs from smaller community farms with free-ranging hens, organically fed and locally marketed. This is the way poultry was done for centuries… before it was corrupted by politics, corporate greed and the blaring ignorance of the food industry.
Fortunately, finding high-quality pastured chickens and organic eggs is relatively easy, as virtually every rural area has small farmers with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores and farmers’ markets are typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources.
Why I Only Recommend Eating Organic Grass-Fed Beef
When it comes to red meat, pasture-fed and finished beef is vastly superior to grain-fed beef, and in my view it’s the only beef worth eating. Keep in mind that it’s far more important to choose “grass-fed” than “organic,” as most grass-fed beef are also organic anyway. Not only is grass-fed beef raised in a more sustainable way for the environment, and a more humane way for the animal, but it’s the superior choice for your health.
That said, be aware that there is a load of deception when it comes to grass-fed beef, so be sure to ask your seller if it is grass finished as that is the key to make sure the animals are not fed grains. Ideally the pasture should be raised on a cocktail cover crop and provide high quality pasture for the cattle.
The natural diet for ruminant animals, such as cattle, is grass. When left to feed on grass-only diets, levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA are three to five times more than those fed grain-based diets. And that’s just for starters. A joint effort between the USDA and Clemson University researchers in 2009 determined a total of 10 key areas where grass-fed beef is better than grain-fed for human health.5 In a side-by-side comparison, they determined that grass-fed beef was:
|Lower in total fat||Higher in total omega-3s|
|Higher in beta-carotene||A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)|
|Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)||Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter|
|Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin||Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)|
|Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium|
Avoid Consuming too Much Meat
While I’m a strong advocate of regularly consuming animal protein for its nutritional benefits, it is my observation that most people eat too much animal protein overall. It would be very unusual for most people reading this to need more than four to six ounces of beef or chicken a day. That is not very much. Additionally, if a personal or spiritual belief limit or prevent you from eating meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, these food items can easily be substituted. However you’ll still want to limit your protein to about one-half gram per pound of lean body mass unless you are doing strength training or are pregnant, in which case you would benefit from about 25 percent more protein per day.
Yes, You CAN Grow and Raise Your Own Food
Real Meat reveals many of the simple and age-tested techniques used to raise chickens, pigs and other livestock at Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. I’ve previously toured Salatin’s farm and interviewed him about his methods as well. Salatin is a sustainable farming pioneer who has also devised a number of creative processes that allow small farmers to grow food in a more efficient manner. One of Salatin’s inventions is the “Egg Mobile,” which allows the farmer to easily move chickens from one paddock to another. By dividing the land into sections (paddocks), and rotating cattle and chickens through the paddocks in turn, you can take full advantage of their symbiotic relationships.
Every couple of days, cows are moved into a new paddock where there’s fresh grass. The cows eat the grass and deposit manure, which attracts insects and worms. When the cows are moved into the next paddock, the chickens are wheeled into the first, where there’s now plenty of natural food for the chickens to eat. This system can work quite well for many small farmers. You don’t have to become a full-fledged farmer to raise your own food, however.
Growing sprouts is probably the easiest, least time-consuming and most inexpensive way to get started growing your own nutritious food. Unlike a conventional vegetable garden, you’ll have food ready for harvest in about one week, and sprouts are among the most nutrient-dense foods out there. Depending on the sprout, the nutrient content can increase as much as 30 times the original value within just a few days of sprouting!
When it comes to animals, chickens are well-suited for a wide variety of locales, and raising chickens for fresh eggs can be another great way to “get your feet wet,” provided you have the right setting, and a little more time. Depending on the breed of the chicken, and the amount of daylight it receives, a chicken will typically lay one egg every 36 hours or so. (They will typically stop laying eggs over the winter, unless artificial day light is provided.) If you are interested in the possibility of raising a few chickens yourself, a good place to begin is by asking yourself the following questions. You can also visit Joel’s Polyface Farm Web site for more details on raising chickens.
- Can I dedicate some time each day? You can expect to devote about 10 minutes a day, an hour per month, and a few hours twice a year to the care and maintenance of your brood.
- Do I have enough space? They will need a minimum of 10 square feet per bird to roam, preferably more. The more foraging they can do, the healthier and happier they’ll be and the better their eggs will be.
- What are the chicken regulations in my town? You will want to research this before jumping in because some places have zoning restrictions and even noise regulations (which especially applies if you have a rooster).
- Are my neighbors on board with the idea? It’s a good idea to see if they have any concerns early on. When they learn they might be the recipients of occasional farm-fresh eggs, they might be more agreeable.
- Can I afford a flock? There are plenty of benefits to growing your own eggs, but saving money isn’t one of them. There are significant upfront costs to getting a coop set up, plus ongoing expenses for supplies.
Support Sustainable Agriculture by Buying “Real” Food
If you want to optimize your health, you simply must return to the basics of healthy food choices. And, as Joel Salatin says in the film, you CAN farm! It’s all a matter of scale. As just mentioned, you can start really small by growing some sprouts to eat with your daily meal. This can progress to a larger organic garden; using pots and planters if you live in an apartment, or by dedicating a part of your back yard to a vegetable garden. If you have the time and space, you could move up to chickens.
Besides growing and raising your own, buying your food from responsible, high-quality, sustainable sources is your best bet, and I strongly encourage you to support the small family farms in your area. This includes not only visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also taking part in farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture programs. Not only is the food so much tastier and healthier when you get it from sustainable, non-CAFO sources, but there is something about shopping for fresh foods in an open-air, social environment that just feels right. If you want to experience some of these benefits first-hand, here are some great resources to obtain wholesome food that supports not only you but also the environment:
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Farmers’ Markets — A national listing of farmers’ markets.
- Local Harvest — This Web site will help you find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
- FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.