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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The real food crisis

As Americans most of us are lucky to have food on our plates and disposable income left over to do with as we please. However, this isn’t the case in many places around the world where hunger and starvation are the reality. It amazes me that while obsessing about our own food choices (organic, natural etc.) is very in style, advocating for feeding the hungry around the world has somehow fallen out of fashion.

A recent Foreign Policy article titled “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers - Stop obsessing about arugula. Your ‘sustainable’ mantra -- organic, local, and slow -- is no recipe for saving the world's hungry millions” addresses this topic.

The article is written by Robert Paarlberg, B.F. Johnson professor of political science at Wellesley College, an associate at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Here is one quote that spoke to me in particular:

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.”

Click here to read the whole article.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day in SEK

Hello blogging fans! I hope you all celebrated Earth Day by taking out the recycling and sharing how farmers practice environmentally friendly production methods every day.  Recently, I attended the Master's of Beef Advocacy Commencement that took place on the KSU campus.  Daren Williams, Exec. Director of Communications for NCBA, encouraged all participants to submit letters to the editor about how Earth Day is everyday for farmers.  I sent my letter in to the newspaper in the closest town, Garnett (my hometown of Colony, KS, population 343, doesn't have a newspaper) and unfortunately it wasn't printed.  However, I figured someone should read it so I've posted it below! Happy reading!

Dear Editor:
The 40th Anniversary of Earth Day is fast approaching and I decided to take it upon myself to compile a list of environmental practices I, and fellow agriculturalists, do to preserve our environment.
- Provide a habitat for Kansas’ wildlife in our green, grassy pastures
- Graze our cattle on grass for as long as possible to preserve and oxygenate topsoil
- Recycle the constant flow of Dr. Pepper cans that accumulate in the feed truck
- Efficiently raise beef on land that is otherwise not viable for crop production
- Convert some of the waste products created by my animals (cattle, horses) to make compost for my backyard vegetable garden
- Utilize the best management livestock production practices that have been passed down from generation to generation in order to allow us to do more with less
- Adopt new technology as it comes along to reduce our carbon footprint
This is far from the entirety of the environmental initiatives farmers exemplify. However, it’s the daily ‘go green’ practices that farmers, ranchers and agriculturalists exhibit everyday that will allow our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same blue skies and green grass in their childhood that we were so fortunate to experience.
I’ll leave you with this line from the old Alabama song Pass it on Down, “So let's leave some blue up above us; Let's leave some green on the ground; It's only ours to borrow, let's save some for tomorrow; Leave it and pass it on down.” Happy Earth Day!

Until next time,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sometimes its all a matter of perspective.

Sometimes we forget just how good we have it here in the United States. I know I for one often take for granted just how simple and safe it is for us to eat. Pause for a minute and think about that. We can take a trip to a grocery store, pay a very reasonable price for meat or produce (as a nation we spend a smaller percentage of our disposable income on food than anyone else) and be almost 100% confident that we wont get sick.

For a project in my graduate program in Ag Economics, I have recently dove head first into learning about the way in which beef is consumed in China. I want to share with you a few things that I learned. I think you will agree that we have it pretty good.

  • Beef production is very unspecialized in China. What I mean by that is that the overwhelming majority of beef is raised "in the backyard" by household farmers. A typical Chinese farmer might own 1-3 cows whose primary role is for draft and trasnport.

  • Similarly, the majority of meat consumed in China is a product of backyard slaughter. Contrast that with our ultra-modern and ultra clean highly efficient harvesting facilities.

  • Since refrigeration is not widely available, especially in rural China, most beef is slaughtered, trasnported to a 'wet market,' sold and consumed all in a very short time span-usually less than a day. If beef has to be trasnported very far to get to the market, it's freshness may be compromised. No dry aged stuff there!

  • Wet markets are open air markets that are similar to what we would call Farmer's Markets. Retailers have a stall in which they sell their product. Hygeine is generally not a priority, at least relative to what we would expect in the US.

  • For beef being sold in these wet markets, no safety standards or quality assurance programs are in place. Often, cattle are not bled properly which damages the meat and leads to premature spoilage.

  • Chinese consumer's are condtioned to the lack of food safety standards. Since the burden of assuring food safety is placed upon the consumers, they place much higher emphasis on sensory attributes like smell, look and even feel. In our country, we trust that our food is safe therefore we concern ourselves with quality, packaging and branding.

  • Beef is ususally devoid of fat and extremely tough. Becasue of this, wet cooking methods like boiling or 'hot-pot' or used widely while roasting and grilling are rare.

These are just some of the issues that characterize beef consumption in China. I think this is strong evidence for the validity of our system. Some people seem to favor a food system based on locally grown products from small scale producers. China already has this system in place, and I can almost bet that if they had our income levels they would trade in their system for ours in a heartbeat. (Those who can afford to prefer to shop in modern supermarkets where meat may be more expensive, but is also more likely to be safer)

So the next time you hear of a large scale meat recall, don't be discouraged! That is just our system doing its job. The alternative is that you could be responsible for inspecting the food yourself.

Tailgate Lectures: Milk Man

The sun settles into the horizon signifying feeding time, Grandpa starts up the old white feed truck that goes an astounding 15 mph on a good day and we head to the North Pasture. After dumping out the alfalfa cubes for the cows to munch on, we take a seat on the tailgate and watch the calves milk during the communal “treat time”. I loved seeing the frothy white mustaches the calves would acquire during this time and have Grandpa explain to me which cows were good mothers. 

You’re probably thinking this post has something tied to milk and the process involved in getting it from the cows and poured into the glass you just dunked a cookie in. While it is a logical follow-up, you’re wrong. I’ve had nagging questions about this post’s topic for a few weeks and it is time I share the answers I was able to find.  In all actuality, it has little to do with the milk-related scene I remembered from my past. Same beverage, different animal.

Have you ever wondered why we don’t drink pig milk?

That’s right, pig milk. Or sow milk, as sow is the term used for a female pig that has given birth to at least one litter of piglets. Pigs give us a lot of food products. They give us bacon, ham and pork chops. Pigs are mammals so we know that they lactate, but why don’t we harvest it so that they can give us milk too?

From researching this topic I have learned a few things about the pitfalls in the logistics of a pork dairy industry. Likewise to any discussion, there are a few pros, like the fact that pig milk would taste great. It has 8.5% butterfat content, compare that to the 3.5% in cow milk and you know it’s a good thing! It has the same percentages of lactose and water as cow milk. The cons I came up with are as follows:

  •            A pig will only produce 12 pounds of milk on an average day. A cow will produce 60. While pigs consume less feed in a day, it’s not a big enough difference to swing a staggering 48-pound deficit in  milk production.
  •            Piglets must be weaned for the sow to become pregnant again. Cows can still be lactating while in gestation. You would have to take a 113-day hiatus from collecting milk every time the sow needed to have a litter.
  •            Sows have around 14 teats. Cows only have 4. Can you imagine a 14-teat milking machine?
  •            Speaking of milking machines. The hormone that stimulates milk to let down in mammals is called oxytocin. A cow will continue to let down milk after the onset of this hormone transmission for 10 minutes. The sow is stimulated to let down milk from the suckling that piglets provide. The ejection time is around 30 seconds. Now imagine a 14-teat milking machine that can collect milk from a sow in less than 30 seconds!

Now that is some food for thought. Meanwhile, support the cow dairy industry and dunk that chocolate chip cookie you were about to eat in a glass of cold, refreshing milk today!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pointing Fingers

Tuesday night, while doing laundry (actually, avoiding doing laundry) I caught up on reading the ag blogs in my inbox. One recent news piece by Gary Truitt of Hoosier Ag Today caught my eye – “Send Out the Clowns.” This title did its job and got me to read the whole piece, which to my disappointment brought to my attention a watchdog group called Corporate Accountability International, blaming McDonald’s and other fast food chains for obesity in children. As I continued to read I vowed three things:

1. I will teach my children how to control their weight by eating healthy foods
2. I will achieve #1 by cooking providing balanced, wholesome meals that are high in protein and fiber – aka dairy products, meat and vegetables
3. In addition to #2, my children will not be sheltered from McDonald’s and the like – they will undoubtedly eat there however, they won’t need the super-sized drink and fries. Portion control is essential
Let’s examine a few points here – in the article, Gary says, “What we need here is a personal accountability group not a Corporate Accountability group.” It is not Ronald McDonald, or The King or the talking Chihuahua’s fault that children are overweight. Parents who are irresponsible with their children’s diet and lifestyle are to blame. Period. Instead of allowing kids to play video or computer games for 4-5 hours/day, get a dog and make it your child’s job to walk it every day. Encourage your kids to sign up for school sports team, a dance club or take them to the park for a some Frisbee or catch.

Also, has anybody ever heard of the Ronald McDonald House? They’re dedicated to helping children and their families in times of need and despair. Just look at their mission statement “The mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) is to create, find and support programs that directly improve the health and well being of children.” Nowhere in there do I read, “Turn children into Butterball Turkeys by deceiving them into eating far too much.” Their efforts include providing mobile mental, dental and medical education to children, providing for support for families with critically ill children and most recently providing dental, mental and medical attention to underprivileged children.

I understand that there are other factors involved in childhood obesity – genetics, environment and household income are a few. However, those obstacles can be combatted with proper diet and exercise.  For example, beef is high in protein which fuels an active lifestyle (running, playing sports) which in turn keeps kids in shape.  Lots of exercise yields hungry children which leads us back to beef and protein. 

The only way to point a finger at the child obesity culprit is for a parent to look in the mirror – then start pointing.

Until next time,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Good Food or Bad Food?

There are a lot of choices in the grocery store. It’s a great thing, but sometimes an overwhelming task is to figure out what food is good and what food is bad. A lot of times I think that certain food groups are used as scapegoats and labeled as “bad food”. We see this a lot in fad diets – eliminate carbs, eliminate all red meat, eliminate anything that tastes good at all! I think where I have gone wrong many times, is not in the food choices I make, but rather the portion sizes that I serve up. I found a really fun way to make sure that you are getting the right portion size, if this is something that troubles you as well.

  • A serving of meat should be the size of a deck of cards.
  • A serving of pasta or rice should be the size of a tennis ball.
  • A serving of peanut butter is no larger than a ping pong ball.
  • A serving of vegetables should be the size of a baseball.
  • The right size for a potato (baked and not loaded!) is the size of your computer mouse.
  • Do you love pancakes? They should be no larger than a CD!
  •  Need a cheese fix? A serving of cubed cheese should be limited to the equivalence of 6 dice.

I thought this was a fun way to equate portion sizes to every day items that we can all visualize. I’m a believer in the food pyramid. I loved cooking with my mom and she taught me about the food pyramid very early in life. There are great references and activities with the food pyramid offered by the USDA.  

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reactions to Food, Inc.

I watched Food, Inc. for the first time this weekend. The movie makes lots of points – some valid and others very misleading.

The movie stresses the importance of safe, healthy food. This is something everyone can agree with. However, Food, Inc. makes it seem like conventionally produced foods are not safe. The fact is there is no food safety benefit to the organic options the movie promotes over conventionally produced food.

Food, Inc. is critical of cheap fast food and advocates for local and organic foods. I agree that Americans need to eat better. Eating a balanced variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy products is something most people could do a better job of. The movie blames obesity on the fact fast food, candy and soda are so cheap and cites income level is the biggest indicator of obesity. This is a real problem. However, organic food is not the solution.

Don’t get me wrong, farmers and ranchers will happily provide the food that people demand. If you prefer to buy organic, and can afford to pay the premium, I support that decision. However, recognize that conventionally-produced food is also a safe, healthy choice. Additionally, this is a much more affordable choice, making it a more realistic option for those who struggle to make ends meet. Conventional food production is also very efficient, which is an important consideration with a growing global population and less resources available to feed people with.

A final point that really bothered me was the movie’s theme that the agriculture industry is trying to hide how food is produced. I personally know many farmers and ranchers who spend their free time trying to reach out and connect with consumers. Check out the Ranch Family Blog or Advocates for Ag to get the food production story from those who know best, actual farmers and ranchers.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tailgate Lectures: Call the Fire Chief - Better Safe than Sorry

I can remember sitting on the back of a tailgate with my Grandpa after feeding the cows. Looking out over the sandy hills of our pasture, through the dust haze settled over a feedlot and right along the horizon seeing a flicker of orange blaze. He told me to grab the bag phone (yes we had those sweet bag phones) and dial the fire department. He rattled off the intersection of old county roads committed to memory and told me to relay the information to the fire chief, Sonny. Always be safe, he said, it's far better than sorry...

Now, I still get that urge to call in a field fire if I happen to stumble upon one driving around the Manhattan area. If you are from the Flint Hills of Kansas you would probably laugh at that urge. If you aren’t, then let this post help you out. It’s pasture burning season in the Flint Hills and if every country kid from Western Kansas called in a pasture fire, I have a feeling the Fire Department would laugh into the receiver. Here’s the low down on why farmers and ranchers must burn off the grasses in the Flint Hills every year about this time.

  •  Cedar trees and scrub brush are considered noxious weeds to pasture managers. They must be eliminated so that they don’t choke out the nutrients that grass needs to grow. Burning is both an economical and environmentally friendly way of eliminating such growth.
  • The dead grass needs to be removed to promote the new fresh growth of nutrient dense grass. Burning is the only way to accomplish this, unless you could invent a mower that could bag thousands of acres and remove the blades of old grass. That’s a big Grasshopper!!!
  • Sometimes cattle are picky and favor one side of a pasture. The grass then grows unevenly and is less desired. Good pasture management and prescribed burning can take care of this problem too. 

Farmers and ranchers have an important environmental impact in the Flint Hills.  They have the ability to harvest thousands of acres of natural grasslands that would otherwise go unused because of the inability to farm the rocky soils. By harvesting the Flint Hills, utilizing cattle as natural lawn mowers, they can produce a nutrient dense food product for consumers around the world.

I’m from the very southwest part of Kansas. That’s past Salina, and Great Bend and even Dodge City, for some people who have trouble with Kansas geography. So I was in some of your shoes when I first moved to Manhattan and experienced the burning of the Flint Hills. For a while I just thought everyone in the neighborhood was grilling out. That’s a lot of hot dogs!

Talk to a stranger about why pastures are being burnt off. I often hear people complaining about smoke in the air this time of year. Maybe if they understood the importance, the smoke doesn't seem so bad. A little understanding can go a long way!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I read it in my Parent’s Magazine…

Walking through the aisles of an Overland Park grocery store, I was helping my older sister make the grocery run a little quicker. We were in the dairy aisle and I had seen, “milk” on her list and grabbed a gallon of 2%. She said, “Oh no, I don’t buy that kind.”

Hmmm…I thought to myself. Mom bought 2% because her mom bought 2% and I’m pretty sure that is why we buy 2%. What kind of milk do you buy, whole?

Well, she had read in her Parent’s Magazine that milk in the grocery store has an added protein referred to as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) in it and that it is bad for her kids. At first I was mad, she was raised in the exact farm family I was raised in. How could she make uninformed food choices like this?  After I thought about it some more, she wasn’t so wrong:

-       My sister subscribes to a well-known magazine that prints articles to help her learn more about healthy choices for her family.

-       Even though rBST that is used in dairy production is identical to the natural protein produced in a cow’s body, it is only used to help the cows efficiently produce more milk for us to drink.

-       She, along with millions of other moms, made the decision without reviewing an article written by a dairy farmer, a reputable University’s dairy department or the USDA. Maybe the baby crying in the next room took precedence over time available to research milk.  

I think this is a lesson to agriculturists in accessibility. Our information needs to be more accessible to consumers. Our entities need to be the source for sound food choices for moms, but they need to be able to find it.

If you are a consumer who wants to learn more about the milk you drink and what the scoop is on rBST, I thought this website has an abundance of facts that are even printed in real English rather than scientific jargon!

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's in your lunchbox?

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is aired every Friday at 8pm central time, featuring new segments on his focus in Huntington Beach, West Virginia. The CDC has proclaimed this town to be the most obese town in America. I found the show very interesting and his philosophy on food even more interesting! It is a touching show that brings a face and true reason to advocate for healthier food choices.

Part of Oliver’s revolution is affecting the way schools prepare food for the children who walk out of the kitchen with trays. There is a very interesting website, The Lunchbox, that gives tools and recipes to school lunch programs. These recipes include a wide variety of healthy foods – from lean protein options to red meat recipes, whole grains and vegetables. This is a smart approach to shaping the future face of the food industry – by starting in schools. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A New Food Philosophy

Fad diets. Miracle weight loss pills. Drastic lifestyle and eating habit changes that more often than not begin with the letter, “V”.  What if it doesn’t need to come down to all of that? What if we took a better, more responsible look at eating healthy and stopped looking for loopholes in the nutritional system?

I am excited to DVR Jamie Oliver’s, Food Revolution, which will air on ABC Friday April 2, at 9/8 pm central.  I hope I am not let down, but from what I have read it will be one of the most honest approaches to de-bugging the food industry and taking a realistic approach at making balanced nutrition decisions in schools and homes.  

Jamie’s philosophy is that food has become an enemy when it should be a joy. America wants to place blame on food groups rather than consuming a portion-controlled diet of various foods and letting the nutritional values of those foods speak for themselves. For more information about Jamie Oliver's philosophy on food, please visit his website and watch the show! Don’t let us down Mr. Oliver!


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