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Jessica Krauss

Jessica Krauss

Organic Farming: What is Technology’s Role?

A recent post on Software Advice entitled Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy?” by Mr. Hunter Richards serves as a reminder of why one interested in sustainable farming mustn’t instinctively cringe at the thought of new technology and agriculture.

As the blog states, organic food has taken off as an industry; the Organic Trade Associations estimated that national sales of organic food and beverages total $24.8 billion annually in comparison to $1 billion just 20 years ago. Organic fruits and vegetables, for example, now represent 11.4% of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. Naturally, one would think that increased demand would push producers to seek efficiency – that is, doing more with less.

Combine food, not just organic food, with demand and, well, you have yourself a headline.

A special report by The Economist, The 9 billionpeople question, introduces the question of if there will be enough food to go around come 2050. But the report focuses on industrial agriculture – since, “traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”

An entire chapter highlights efficiency. How does one increase yield by 1.5% a year over the next 40 years to feed mankind? The article details three ways: narrowing the gap between the worst and best producers, spreading the “lifestock revolution” (expanding the CAFO system because – “battery chickens” do a better job than traditional methods), and taking advantage of new plant technologies (marker-assisted breeding seems to be the key technology).

Additionally, The New York Times recently asked seven professionals Is the World Producing Enough Food?” Multiple authors were in agreement that meeting the greater per capita food consumption could be met by increasing yields through increasing technologies. Dr. Kenneth Cassman, a professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska, mentioned the current weakness in yield comes partially from “a substantial decrease in funding of research to enhance yields by methods other than biotechnology.”

These three articles all mention new technology’s potential to meet increasing food demand. Although The Economist focused on industrial agriculture and technological improvements, Mr. Richard’s article is a unique reminder that those involved in “organic food,” who some may assume are defined by their aversion to technology, also can crave increasing their efficiency through technology. Read More >

CLF Knows What’s in the Nation’s Chicken

On Thursday, CLF Director Dr. Robert S. Lawrence joined, Dr. David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, and, Urvashi Rangan, PhD (JHSPH ’95), Consumer Reports, on the Dr. Oz Show’s segment entitled “What’s in the Nation’s Chicken?”

The guests on this national broadcast began by discussing the additives in our nation’s chicken supply, and, secondly, highlighted the role of purchasing power in driving industry change. In particular, Dr. Lawrence explained the role of antibiotics in promoting growth in chickens and the benefits and risks of the arsenical compound roxarsone.

Click on image to play

Although industrial animal production and healthy food choices have received more attention in academia and in legislation, we cannot forget the importance of engaging with the media in order to achieve CLF’s core goal of raising individual awareness of our responsibility for environmental stewardship, effecting individual behavior, and, consequently, stimulating societal changes.

Not convinced by the demonstrations and statements in the Dr. Oz segment? Check out previously published CLF blogs on related scientifically based research and testimonies:

Is confinement the “cruelest manifestation of factory farming?”

pigYesterday, Dr. James McWilliams-a history professor from Texas State University, author of Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and Johns Hopkins University alum-posted on the New York Times blog Freakonomics. Dr. McWilliams provides an analysis of farrowing crates, which are cages that confine individual lactating female pig. He collects feedback from various farmers to discuss the controversial method of feeding, which some see as cruel factory farming while others argue this method saves the lives of piglets. The blog cites opinions from both sides of the argument.

For example, Dr. McWilliams cites a farmer, Ms. Deanna Quan, who states that she follows all of the Animal Welfare Institute guidelines except for the restriction on farrowing crates. She states that “instead of carrying out buckets of dead baby pigs, I now have a 95 to 98 percent survival rate [because of her use of farrowing crates].” On the contrary, Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, states that these crates are similar to a human being “buckled into an airplane seat for six weeks.” Read More >

The Toughest Test

Great Kids Farm Greenhouse

Great Kids Farm Greenhouse

On Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future honored Baltimore City Public Schools’ Great Kids Farm with an award for visionary leadership in local food procurement and food education. The school system is now able to provide local milk, fruits, and vegetables with meals it serves and is working to help its more than 200 schools and programs develop their own gardens. Throughout the month numerous articles on this trend towards local food production have been published. For example, The Baltimore Sun published an article about the first harvest of the new one-acre garden at McDonogh School in Owings Mills. This isn’t a new trend. In fact, McDonogh School began in 1873 as a school for orphan boys who grew their own foods and farming continued at the School until the early 1960s.

Coincidentally, The New York Times published an article Tuesday entitled “Schools’ Toughest Test: Cooking” about the impressive efforts that New York City’s Middle School 137 has made in redefining their lunch program. The article proves that it is possible to “entice nearly 2,000 students at the height of adolescent squirreliness to eat a good lunch,” but that it is definitely not easy: ingredients must be approved by the Department of Education, meet the food cravings of a culturally diverse student body, and then there is the need for cooking equipment—according to the article, only half of New York’s 1,385 school kitchens have enough cooking and fire-suppression equipment to actually cook. The efforts by Sharon Barlatier, the manager of the middle school cafeteria, that are described are commendable.

The article is a must read for anyway who questions the practicality of providing quality lunch programs in urban schools nationwide.

Do ‘Danes know best’ in responsible use of agricultural antibiotics?

Earlier this week we received word from Amsterdam that the Dutch may be followers of Center for a Livable Future’s Meatless Monday campaign. While the Dutch may be learning from the United States, maybe it’s time for the United States to also start taking pointers from somewhere else?

David Wallinga published a well-written op-ed two days ago in the Twin Cities Daily Planet entitled, “Why Danish Farmers Stopped Feeding Antibiotics to Animals.” The answer to this question, according to Mr. Wallinga, is that in 1998 they made a rational decision in realizing that the antibiotics that they had been using could be a public health issue, create a risk for their strong exporting meat market, and even lead to deteriorating human health by diminishing the effectiveness of antibiotics for serious infections by creating resistance.

The article reiterates the point that Center for a Livable Future makes: antibiotics do not have to be part of modern day agriculture. Why then, however, haven’t we here in the United States been able to follow in Denmark’s footsteps and lower the estimated 70 percent of antibiotics that we feed to healthy animals?

According to Mr. Wallinga we have a limited number of excused to make. We can’t say that Denmark doesn’t make agriculture a top priority—Denmark remains the largest exporter of pork in the world.

We can’t say that we care more about the health of our animals—the sick animals still get treated with antibiotics in Denmark. We can’t say that we care more about productivity—productivity of Danish agriculture has continued to improve. We can’t say that we care too much about profit—there has been no change in the price of meat for consumers.

Then what is it? Mr. Wallinga answers this with a question: “Could it be that the largest producers of of animal antibiotics, like Bayer and Pfizer, are major supporters of the status quo?”

I’ll let you answer that question.