May 6, 2010
On Tuesday, Animal Welfare Approved and the Pew Environment Group presented a public panel discussion about raising pasture-based animals, and reclaiming these sustainable farming systems as the source of our meat and dairy. The star-studded panel included Nicolette Hahn Niman, attorney and author of Righteous Porkchop, Carole Morison, former Purdue chicken farmer turned whistleblower and sustainable farming consultant, David Kirby, investigative journalist and author of Animal Factory and Dr. Patricia Whisnant, vet, rancher and president of the American Grassfed Association. As farmers, Carole Morison and Dr. Whisnant have had personal experiences with the industrial animal agriculture system currently producing most of the meat in our country today, and have chosen another path. Nicolette’s husband Bill Niman founded Niman Ranch, which he has since left as he felt that the standards declined to a point he couldn’t live with, after a management change in 2006. They continue to raise beef on pasture but sell under a private label. Kirby has turned his investigative skills on factory farming – the way we raise most of our meat today – and what he found out has spurred him to let out a battle cry to put an end to these factories that call themselves farms.
The discussion was lively, and at times contentious. All panelists agreed that the detrimental impacts from industrial food animal production on the environment – our air and water – and on us – in the form of antibiotic residue in the meat we eat – are too great to be ignored. These concerns, coupled with a clear recognition that respecting animal welfare leads to sustainable farming, have driven all of them to speak out against the industrial system. While the concern about environmental degradation was a unifying theme, so too was a hopeful vision of the future in raising animals for food in a manner that affords them fresh air and clean, fresh food (grass!). They all agreed that sustainable and humane alternatives are real and viable solutions. Nicolette brought up the suggestion that in addition to changing the way we raise meat, we need to eat less meat. This cause has been championed by the Meatless Monday campaign (now catching on all over the world), and Niman pointed out that the message should not only be less, but also “eat better meat.” How do we do that? And how do we get other consumers to do that? The answer is two-fold. What is called for is consumer education about the major differences between the industrial system and sustainable grass-based farms, and education about how and where to find the better meat.
This is where the Animal Welfare Approved program comes in. For a family farm to be AWA certified, they must raise their animals with the highest of animal welfare standards, outdoors, on pasture or range. The certification program strives to be completely transparent and honest, a label that means what it says, and that consumers can trust. This label communicates to the consumer: this meat has been raised in a sustainable manner to the utmost degree. In lieu of getting to know the farmer that raises your meat and visiting their farm, this label is the way to know more about where your meat and dairy comes from when you are buying goods from the store. This allows people to buy food from “a place you’d like to visit” as Nicolette put it.
When asked the last question of the evening, “Can we feed the world with sustainable farming?” all panelists agreed, yes, it is not only possible, but necessary. Carole added, we shouldn’t be so concerned with “feeding the world” anyway, but more concerned with, can we feed our neighbors food that we feel good about, and that we can make a livelihood from? Her point was that too often food aid disrupts local markets overseas, interfering with those farmers’ ability to sell food in their own country. At the same time, we are not feeding ourselves good food. And yes, she has seen fully sustainable, large scale systems in action and can attest that we can indeed produce enough food through sustainable systems.
In addition to boosting consumer education and thus demand for pastured meat and dairy products, Kirby identified that we must at the same time reform the industrial system to protect our air, water, and animals now. He recently wrote an article on the Huffington Post outlining four steps that the Obama administration could take to dramatically reign in this system: Limit subsidies, Bust Trusts, Pass a “Packer Ban,” and Restrict Antibiotics. Reminding us that President Obama promised agriculture reform during the election, Kirby and the other panelists agreed, the time is now.