This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few months ago I had some serious fungi in my bathroom. And unlike the time it appeared, grey and speckled, in the dark dank bathroom of my old rat-trap Brooklyn apartment, I was thrilled. This time it wasn't mildew, it was oyster mushrooms.
My apartment is certainly the best place I've lived in during my adult life, but it doesn't get a ton of light. I have a mint plant in the one window that gets some sun, but otherwise my gardening options are limited. So when Fab.com had a sale on mushroom cultivation kits from The Imaginary Farmer, I bought one, choosing the Hantana Phoenix Oyster kit.
The Imaginary Farmer kits caught my eye because they promised a more hands on experience than the other kit I had bought last year, which was an already inoculated pressure-cooked substrate. With that, I didn't have to do much beyond mist it to get it to grow, but I didn't really learn that much either. This kit required me to assemble the environment for the spawn myself.
Reading the booklet that came with the kit, I realized I would be assembling a war in a bag. A type of microscopic war I was rather familiar with given my experiments in wild yeast ciders and exploration of the role of microfauna in human health.
I've often been a bit amused by straw-man rich anti-organic agriculture writings that accuse advocates of sustainable agriculture of being Luddites desirous of dragging us all back into a miserable 14th-century peasant past. The reality is that most modern farms that are part of this movement utilize methods that didn't exist until recently. The modern sustainable farmer is more likely to own pipettes and beakers than they are to own scythes (not that there is anything wrong with scythes).
While humans have been consuming mushrooms for a very long time, cultivating mushrooms is newer, perhaps dating to the late 1700s. Many methods used today date to the 1970s, when certain people were very interested in cultivating err...certain "magic" mushrooms. Even to this day, an innocent cultivator of culinary mushrooms is likely to wade through a lot of material of the more psychedelic persuasion, which is credit to the fact that these people did a lot of the pioneering work in indoor growing out of necessity (similarly a lot of stuff used in indoor growing of vegetables can credit marijuana growers). Culinary and "magic" mushrooms are not the only options though, it is also possible to grow many important medicinal mushrooms like reishi.
The method in the Imaginary Farmer kit used oyster-mushroom inoculated grain, which was barley. This led to some question from gluten-free friends about whether it was safe for them. Honestly, I have no idea, but it would be interesting to study. For the rest of the substrate I used coffee grounds and sawdust. I was lazy and just used tap water for everything even though you are not supposed to because of the chlorine.
Did I mention this was a war? A war between the things I wanted to grow, which are mushrooms, and the biodiverse bouquet of ubiquitous other flora and fauna in the air, my breath, the sawdust, my hands... pretty much everything. My job to to give my team the advantage, but introducing as little of the other little folks as possible into my growing environment. I kept my hands clean with rubbing alcohol and the spawn sold by the Imaginary Farmer was selected to be resistant to hydrogen peroxide, which allowed me to use that to clean the sawdust. I put that all in a special mushroom-growing bag that had a filter-vent. And then I left it in my cupboard in the dark for awhile. And eventually it started to look like tempeh with a nice white mycelium binding the substrate into a block, which is the real "body" of the mushroom creature.
The bad thing here for mushroom growing about my apartment is I have central heating, which makes it really really dry. So I put the block in my shower window, cutting a small growing hole and then covering the rest. I misted them in the morning and at night when I got home from work and suddenly one morning they appeared!
The cool thing about this variety of oyster mushroom, which is a clone of a mushroom the company found interesting, is that in its early stages it has this salmon egg-like "tears."
Otherwise they aren't very photogenic. Some visitors called them "creepy." They got a bit more photogenic as they grew and I opened up another hole to start a new fruiting body (that's the actual mushrooms). I was really happy with my results. I was keeping a nice humid environment and my apartment temp tends around 50-62F.
The other things are terrariums I made in a Dabble class that ended up not doing very well.
I had to harvest them a little earlier than I wanted because I went on a trip, but they kept well in a paper bag in the fridge, though some dried out a little.
I cooked some of them with a steak I made and used the rest for a Viking themed party. For that I cooked them in smoked duck fat with some bog myrtle I got in Montreal, then cooked some lingonberries in duck fat with birch syrup, and served on a sourdough rye crisp with a bit of seaweed, cured duck breast, and wild boar, and shavings of getöst.
Photo by Jen Moran
They were really excellent in flavor and not at all like anything I've had from a store. They had a faint funkiness, which as a fish sauce lover, I welcomed, as well as the fantastic umami punch that characterizes the best mushrooms. If you don't eat meat, they can add a meatiness to dishes, but if you do they somehow manage to make meat even more "meaty" and flavorful.
Sadly the next few weeks were busy and while the block continued to fruit a bit, I neglected it and they dried up. The death knell was on a nice warm(er) day I left the window open and then the temperature dropped 30 degrees while I was out at dinner (thanks Chicago). When I came home the mushrooms had turned black and they shriveled up. It hasn't fruited since, but I might try "restarting" it by soaking it in water, even though that's kind of a crapshoot. I also wanted to try another variety and maybe other more attractive methods (like logs) or methods that could be used on the farm.
So when I saw a class on Meetup.com by the Chicago Permaculture Meetup's Kevin Hovey, I signed up. It was at the Stone Soup Coop, a place that definitely feels like what I imagine the 70s were like.
We went over different varieties (I want to try the almond agaricus, which is supposed to taste a bit nutty) and methods we could use from logs to bags to "terrariums." I'd love to use the logs on the farm and the terrariums in my apartment, particularly if I could use a pretty bell jar. Kevin talked a bit about how he wants to build a lab so he can get the kind of sterility in a filtered hood that really gives the mushroom cultures and spores an advantage.
He also talked a bit about getting your own spores and cultures. He gathered some local Chicago oyster mushrooms from a tree and cultured them. We used slow cookers to pasteurize brown rice bran substrates (gluten-free this time!) in jars and then used a homemade hood and needles to inoculate a variety of cultures and spores, which we got to take home. I have them in my cabinet at home and hopefully I will see some mycelium running soon, which incidentally is the name of a book by Paul Stamets that I've been reading. I also should probably pick up his more academic tome Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. He also has a popular TED talk.
I took a mycology class when I was in school in Sweden, but it was on forestry pests and I learned more about killing than growing them. But really the more I learn about this subject, the more I realize that there is so much that humans don't know about mushrooms. For example, only a few people know how to cultivate morels (I'd love to order some pre-inoculated trees for the farm) and black truffles. No one knows how to cultivate the prized matsutake, with its heavenly pine-forest aroma.
But these mysteries are certainly part of the appeal. And for the matsutake, even if you could grow it, would it really be the same? It is a mushroom defined by the ecosystem of the pine forest, with its flavors and aromas you can't get in a plastic bag. Wild mushrooms have a distinct terroir that many cultivated mushrooms can lack. For example the chaga I have in my cupboard task incredibly like the birch they came from, but you can hope that mushrooms grown in a bag don't taste like a bag. Growing outdoors in logs might allow me to cultivate a greater terroir by selecting different types of logs.
Either way, I've had a great deal of fun so far with mushrooms without even getting high and I'm looking forward to learning more. Have any of your grown mushrooms? What are your favorite resources and varieties?
Today I saw the headline: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?
Which is appallingly stupid considering that quinoa is trendy among many segments of the health-conscious crowd. Like many articles of this genre, it also wants believe consumers have more power than they do. What would happen in Western health nuts stopped eating quinoa? Would this benefit the people there somehow? I guess it's more fun to blame trendy dieters than to face larger issues of water scarcity (and water pricing and allocation) and middlemen. It's the same faulty line of logic that many vegans use when talking about meat.
It is a bit amusing to consider how consumption of far away foods lets us turn a blind eye to their production (it's far), which is why I tend to advocate food systems that bring people closer to their food production- and its consequences.
The article also details failed attempts to grow quinoa elsewhere. Interestingly enough, I was researching yesterday traditional foods of the Midwest, and I'm not talking about Chicago Hot Dogs, but about what people were eating and growing here in the 1600s and before. Turns out the form of agriculture indigenous to this region utilized a relative of quinoa - Chenopodium berlandieri. As a cultivated crop, only remnants remain and from what I can gather, nothing of the kind grown for seeds the way quinoa is grown now. A leaf-heavy version is eaten in Mexico as a vegetable.
But echoes remain. All those lamb's quarters growing out of your patio are ghosts of The Eastern Agricultural Complex- possibly feral ancestors of domesticated crops, which explains some of their tenacity as weeds. I would think it would be possible to re-domesticate through selective breeding. It already makes a fine salad. Wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons found the grains even of the modern weed somewhat easy to harvest:
“In rich soil,” he said, “lamb’s quarters will grow four or five feet high if not disturbed, becoming much branched. It bears a heavy crop of tiny seeds in panicles at the end of every branch. In early winter, when the panicles are dry, it is quite easy to gather these seeds in considerable quantity. Just hold a pail under the branches and strip them off. Rub the husks between the hands to separate the seed and chaff, then winnow out the trash. I have collected several quarts of seed in an hour, using this method.
“The seeds are quite fine, being smaller than mustard seeds, and a dull blackish-brown color....I find it pretty good food for humans.”
I think this also brings me to question certain studies that have tried to estimate the amount of wild grains foragers could have harvested- the ones we encounter now might be feralized crops, not true wild seeds or grains. That might also be why many are less toxic than truly wild seeds/grains. It's probably worth soaking and rinsing though since like quinoa, it may contain high levels of saponins.
Another former crop, Sumpweed, Jared Diamond says was abandoned because it was allergenic and smelled bad, but that didn't stop modern farmers from reshaping rapeseed, a crop that seems quite far from edible with its high levels of nasty erucic acid, into canola, which is now a novel and strangely unquestioned ubiquitous part of our food supply. Plenty of other foods that foragers and agriculturalists eat are toxic when harvested- that is often a feature, not a bug, as it keeps other competing pests away. Humans are smart enough to detoxify through soaking, rinsing, fermentation, and other technologies.
It's interesting how so many Americans look to afar for interesting foods while ignoring the ones in our backyards.
There is also a legend that quinoa is "cursed" which is why North American production has been so difficult, but I find it more logical to think that the Chenopodium that is Quinoa is adapted to a specific environment that we can't offer. There is also some evidence that ancient northern Europeans cultivated a type of Chenopodium as well, remnants of that perhaps are seen in England's Pigweed.
I remember when I was a vegetarian and I first encountered literature on veganism that described the dairy industry. When I learned about how older cows and unwanted calves were sent to slaughter, it made sense to become a vegan. To this day, beyond people who don't like meat or who come from a vegetarian cultural tradition, vegetarianism doesn't make much sense to me. Even for people who are religious vegetarians, the dairy produced in most of the US is a far cry from that traditionally consumed in India.
Even the beef cattle from the worst farm gets to spend part of their lives, usually most of their lives, on pasture. It's a far cry from factory egg and milk production, where animals are often in a state of continuous overcrowding in filthy low-quality conditions. This is true confinement agriculture.
In confinement dairies, after cows have reached the end of their "production cycle" they are normally sent to the slaughterhouse. This was in the news recently because some animal rights activists exposed the mistreatment of a dairy cow at a slaughterhouse. The video is worth watching if you can stomach it, but the cow was a "downer" cow, meaning she was sick and was lying down. The video shows workers torturing her with electric prods. It's sickening.
Beef from dairy cows is 6 percent of all beef production in the U.S. and about 18 percent of ground beef, but the amount varies. I'd imagine that because of the drought, more and more farmers will send their cows to slaughter as feed prices continue to soar.
Typically this isn't exactly premium beef, but it doesn't have to be this way. The NPR article notes:
Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.
If you are buying from a local dairy this might be a great opportunity to get some decent grass-fed beef for pretty cheap. I find that a lot of people, particularly people who eat grass-fed beef for health reasons, don't care all that much about getting the very best quality. For example, my family slaughtered an older cow and the beef was a little lean and chewy. At $3 a lb, it sold out immediately, mainly to the Crossfit types. I ate it too. It was fine, and even very good in certain dishes like Chili or Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" so it's quite fitting.
Another great option is pastured veal. Now this isn't the kind of veal you feel bad about buying. It's from young steers that grazed with their mothers on pasture, not from confined grain-pap fed calves. It's actually really really good and I think it is going to become a trend, because the cuts are so much smaller and so easier to fit in a small freezer.
Indeed, the method of chaining and crating veal calves is a new practice, established in the years following World War II when the agricultural communities of the United States began their dramatic move from the small, intimate and self-sustaining farms they were to feed-lots and monocropping. Dairy farmers moved male offspring, who otherwise held little value, indoors to save space and costs in an era when young farmers were encouraged to “modernize.” Tradition, as is often the case, was lost under the effort to modernize the agriculture of America’s heartland. Prior to this change, veal calves were raised alongside their mothers in open pasture, under the sun and with access to clean air and fresh water before their brought to harvest at about the same time lambs are traditionally slaughtered. Thanks to the renaissance of truly traditional and sustainable farming practices – and, in a way, to the raw milk movement – humanely raised veal is increasing in availability.
I don't know anyone who eats confinement veal and it amazes me that they still produce it. The dairy farm next to me has about 20 calves in teeny tiny pens. It's not as bad as a PETA video, but I do not think it is a production method that respects the animal. This dairy farm is also a small family farm, so once again proof that this is no guarantee that such an operation is a good one.
A commenter on my last post pointed out that craigslist is a good source for finding some affordable beef, if you don't mind the animal having had some grain in its life. One of the first results for Chicago was a pastured Jersey steer for $1.40 a lb. Surprisingly big though at 1000 lbs, but I wonder what the yield on this breed is. The yield is the actual weight of the meat since there are things you obviously aren't getting in your freezer order like skin/hooves/horns/etc. It's an on-farm pickup which is great too, since you can see what the farm is like, though obviously it would be awkward if you got there and it was not to your liking. Maybe this calls for a new post on interviewing your food suppliers...
Jersey cattle in the UK from Wikimedia
I've seen a lot on social media the past week about boycotting Chick-Fil-A because they support organizations that aim to restrict gay rights. This is amusing for me because I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, eating Chick-Fil-A all the time. And I even went to Camp Winshape, which was started by Truett Cathy, Chick-Fil-As founder. Back then I was a fast-food-fried chicken Southern Evangelical. My life has changed since then, but I admit my mouth still waters a little when I think about the Chick-Fil-A fried chicken breakfast biscuit with tater tots. Oh, and the light as air lemon meringue pie. When my family moved north when I was 15, I missed such things sorely and ate at Chick-Fil-A whenever I went back South. But the love affair fell flat when I started cleaning up my diet. I remember I planned on making some exceptions when a Chick-Fil-A opened on the University of Illinois campus. I eagerly devoured my sandwich one bright Illinois morning. And felt absolutely awful for the entire rest of the day. It felt a lot like a hangover. I fell asleep in economics class. I told myself that wouldn't happen again. It wasn't worth it.
But a craving struck when I lived in Sweden. Obviously, it's impossible to get Chick-Fil-A there. So I hit the internet hoping to recreate it in my own kitchen. By then I was a lot more educated about nutrition, so the "top secret" recipe seemed a little horrifying to me. I wasn't about to coat chicken in sugar and flour and fry it in omega-6 garbage peanut oil. Of all the oils to chose, peanut is one of the worst. Extremely high in omega-6, which Americans consume in excessive amounts, it has a more unfavorable fat profile than even canola or soy oil, and is highly allergenic. Omega-6 is also not particularly heat stable and Chick-Fil-A is using it on fried chicken.
The real recipe also contains a form of MSG called autolyzed yeast extract, making it a super-palatable addictive monster, probably why it still makes my mouth water a decade later. I've written before about how so much meat that Americans eat contains sugar and inflammatory oils. I ended up using almond flour, honey, and lard to make my chicken and it was pretty damn good. But that recipe meant I was never seriously tempted by Chick-Fil-A again.
Also, god knows where their chicken comes from. I'm pretty sure it's not free-range or even organic. For a company whose ads involve animals pleading to not being eaten, it seems a little sad to think that their meat comes from an industry known for poor animal welfare, as well as community and environmental destruction.
Considering that chickens are excluded from almost all animal welfare legislation, it should be the chickens pleading to be spared. Besides, I'd prefer to not consume arsenic. Or production methods that encourage antibiotic resistance.
So I don't need to boycott Chick-Fil-A for its current stance on gay rights. I already was boycotting it for serving garbage. I mean, nothing says family values like abusing animals, destroying the environment, and addicting people to fast food...right?
It's really disappointing to me to see friends and family members saying they are going to eat Chick-Fil-A to support "family values" and "business freedom." Go to your local farmers market and you will find plenty of farmers with good old-fashioned Christian values. I'm sure Joel Salatin and Cathy would find much to agree on, except Salatin is against using the government to enforce his values while Cathy uses his business to funnel money into groups that lobby the government to shape laws that restrict other people's rights.
As for Chick-Fil-A being a "clean" fast food option, thanks to HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plans, food poisoning is pretty rare at any major fast food restaurants. Killing people with acute illness leads to lawsuits, it's perfectly OK to damage their health by serving food linked to chronic long-term health problems.
People keep sending me The Myth of Sustainable Meat by James McWilliams. If you've followed this blog long enough you'll know I've blogged about James before. I'm also a regular commenter on his articles on the Atlantic. I've been enough of a nuisance that I've gotten his attention and he's written about me too.
Apparently the New York Times has an issue finding qualified writers to write on this hot topic. This seem to mainly employ a cookbook author, Mark Bittman, on the subject. Here we have James McWilliams who is a historian. I must say though, that he's learned a lot since when I first started reading him. Back then he was just pretending to be an anti-locavore and hadn't come out with his main motivation, which is animal rights. He even admits that sustainable agriculture works best when using animal manure as a fertilizer. But the rest is still just a hashup of his normal shtick over and over again.
Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.
Brazil is its own special situation, a perfect storm of inept government and corporate thievery. I don't think any sustainable agriculture advocates are saying we should get our beef from there.
And then we have a straw man, that is the idea that we'd have to take up almost half the country to produce grass-fed meat. Not only does that use a static 10 acres per cow, which is not always true, but it just wouldn't happen. It's just not a danger that our country is going to be taken over by cows. Never mind land-use patterns, when we switch to a more expensive model of production, demand will drop.
The chickens are a red herring. He mentions them again, saying how Joel Salatin has to use grain to produce chicken. I've written before that this model is unsustainable. It's not possible to produce truly pastured American-style chicken. But what about cattle, goats, and other ruminants? The attack on chicken is a total misdirection.
"Sustainable" agriculture is not a monolith. There are a variety of philosophies and methods that are very different from each other. It's possible to find good and bad at every farmer's market.
Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).
This is nonsense. The point is that the goal is to have a net positive on the pasture when you are grazing animals. Of course it's possible to do it wrong, to end up with a poor nutrient cycle, but then you are doing it wrong. And the animals reproduce so they are replaced. Some of the crop they fertilize also fix nutrients themselves. Simon Fairlie's book has an excellent chapter about this and about sustainable use of carcasses. Needless to say, humans produce waste not matter what they eat. And since I, like most Americans, don't have a septic tank, I don't think I'm contaminating one.
I would say that there are some efforts to do no-kill agriculture with animals, notably pioneered by a rich Indian family that owns a chain called Otarian, but I read about it several years ago and I don't think it ever got off the ground.
It's overall just a silly article that I'm sure will generate a lot of page views and forwards from smug people.
When humans started transitioning towards agrarian ways of life around 10,000 years ago, it wasn't just the types of food that changed. It wasn't just about more reliance on grains and less on meat, but about a fundamental change in the food system. True hunter-gatherers literally live day to day, not storing any food for later use. Horticulturalists started manipulating the forest so that they could have living stores of certain things like cassava and also started fermenting various plant and animal foods. As the human species moved into the arctic (LATER ON in our evolutionary history, contrary to some polar pushers that are popular "paleo diet" authors) and started living in more marginal areas in general, we developed smoking and salting as methods of preservation.*
But with agrarianism came the widespread processing and long-term storage of foods, particularly grains and legumes.
This opened up humans to all kinds of new vulnerabilities from rancidity, molds, and bacterial contamination during storage. We've largely forgotten about these things because science has eliminated so many extreme acute examples. When was the last time you heard about someone getting ergotism? Ergotism is caused by a fungus that grows on rye. In the past, a contaminated harvest could terrorize entire towns. A lovely description from 857: "a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."
While antinutrients and rouge plant proteins tend to get a lot of focus in blaming such foods for the poor health of ancient agrarian populations, such contamination also probably played a role. In developing countries, aflatoxins, a type of mycotoxins, still remain a serious health issue. They are something to always be aware of when parsing epidemiological data from agrarian cultures.
While few people in the US seem to be suffering from gangrene because of mold, whether or not even low levels of contamination and rancidity are an issue remains debatable. Regulatory agencies have different standards for what is spoiled. In Europe, the standard for Patulin, a toxin produced by P. expansum that shows immune system damage in animal products, is 10 μg/kg for children's apple juice. The action level for the US FDA is 50 µg/kg.
In terms of rancidity, I notice a lot of industrial food producers are adding antioxidants like Vitamin E to oils vulnerable to oxidative damage, so someone is aware that it's a bad thing. But I think a lot of restaurants even exhaust the antioxidant additive's abilities by using the oil to fry stuff over and over again. In animal models at least, feeding oxidized fat is a great way to induce inflammation. There is mounting evidence they are a health threat for humans.
And possibly because such types of spoilage is relatively evolutionarily novel, most humans seem to be unable to detect it simply by taste or smell. This is made worse when one is used to consuming sub-par food. The Chicago Tribute today had an article that noted that many immigrants find US peanut butter tastes rancid, but to most of us it tastes delicious. Also a study showed that 44% of Americans actually preferred the taste of rancid olive oil.
Many people I've talked to report that they feel fine eating "bad" foods in Europe. I've had that experience myself and it's very interesting. It's perhaps a testament to the EU's higher standards.
When I think about the diet I eat now vs. the diet I ate in the past, one thing that stands out is that almost all of my food is now in the fridge or freezer rather than in my cabinets. My cabinets are actually just full of tea and underused ktichen appliances. Of course, solve one problem and another one pops up- there is a hypothesis that Crohns could be caused by bacteria that thrive in fridge temperatures.
*which have their own particular health risks that could make up an entire post
So after the silly article in NPR, a lot of people simply said that paleo is definitely not about grain-fed meat. But I find a lot of people who purchase "alternative" products are eating grain-fed meat without even knowing it, simply because it's pretty hard to do commercially viable chicken or pork without it. I and others have worked on models, but they aren't coming to a store near you anytime soon.
And for poultry, even if it's from a farmer's market, it's not often free-range in the way you might think of it. In NYC there was one farm selling poultry and I read about how they wouldn't allow people tours to their farm. When I looked closer, I realized that was because while the poultry wasn't in individual cages, they were kept in dark sheds. But it was a small family farm, so what can you say? I guess it's hard for people to believe that such a place could do wrong.
Philosophically, I like to have livestock living as close to how an animal would live in nature as possible. I know people will argue that chickens are safer in dark sheds, but people argue people are safer with irradiated food. In a natural system, some animals don't come home. Some animals die. They fall prey to raccoons or coyotes or accidents. That's a loss economically, but philosophically I'd rather have the animals survive on their own terms, fully using all their muscles and ancient survival instincts, than shut up in a shed. Perhaps I'm more sentimental than I give myself credit for.
Historically chickens and pigs were secondary production methods. They ate waste from the other crops produced on the farm. This was a sustainable method and what is highlighted in Simon Fairlie's book.
But if I were supplying a cafeteria this way, most of the time they wouldn't get chicken and when they did, it would be a smaller mostly-dark meat chicken. As I've written before, I think it's not a bad thing to have less chicken or pork, as these meats are generally nutritionally inferior to ruminant meats. I think these birds are delicious and most of the world agrees with me, but Americans want their chicken breasts.
And so even small sustainable farmers are giving it to them. And I think it's at the expense of making the pastured model truly grass-fed and truly pastured. If you are putting deformed modern industrial chicken breeds (the Persians or Pugs of chickens in terms of their deformities and health problems acquired because of breeding to please humans rather than overall function) in a cage on pasture and feeding them grains...that's better than factory farming, but how much?
Here are some pictures of farms I've dealt with:
This is the chicken tractor with Cornish Cross method Salatin made famous. These birds are being produced for a "green" restaurant that serves chicken every night. I didn't talk with this farmer about the behavior of these chickens, but at these densities I think bullying becomes an issue, but maybe not since this breed is basically a catatonic walking breast. In Eating Animals, a pastured poultry farmer named Frank Reese says:
Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask them. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. (113)
"OK," he concedes. "You know what, that's fine if you want to do that. I'm not opposed to heritage breeds. We have some heritage breeds. Here's the problem though: marketability. When you say: 'Can we feed the world?', we're not going to turn around the system by feeding only 10% of the population. We gotta feed 90%."
You don't think people will pay…
"Double?" he says, finishing my question. "No, they won't. And besides, it's all dark meat. No double breast. Hey, 40 years ago, every woman in the country – I'll be real sexist here – every woman in the country knew how to cut up a chicken. When we started doing these pastured chickens, it was a moot point. Nobody asked for breast – it didn't exist! I mean as a separate item. Now 60% of our customers don't even know that a chicken has bones! I'm serious. We have moved to an incredibly ignorant culinary connection."
Salatin is hitting his stride now. "We tried heritage chickens for three years and we couldn't sell 'em. I mean, we could sell a couple. But at the end of the day, altruism doesn't pay our taxes. And I'm willing to say: 'You know what? I don't have all the answers and I pick my battles and compromises.' If you want to get brutally honest, in my opinion we shouldn't even have egg sales in America! Every restaurant and every home should have two or three chickens. I mean, you got a parakeet, why not have two chickens? You get eggs instead of a parrot keeping you awake at night. In a perfect world, that's how it would be."
Which sounds exactly like the arguments factory farmers or Barbara King make. Is this really all going back to bare efficiency? Maybe we should rethink chicken's place in the production system in the first place. Thousands of pastoral cultures did grass-fed quite fine without it. But Salatin would not be able to sell to conventional restaurants if he didn't use this method probably. How many restaurants are willing to have chicken on the menu only 1/8th of the year and mainly in the form of broth?
These chickens are on Veritas farm in New York. They are eating apples that were damaged in a hail storm. They go pretty much wherever they want.
And these are chickens on my family's farm, hanging out stupidly with cows. They also go wherever they want. Luckily, as heritage breeds, they are a little smarter. Of course both these examples also eat grain, but not human-food-quality grain and not a lot compared to other models. And it's possible to go-grain free on this model with some ingenuity. Socially, they are much less interested in pecking at each other because a bullied chicken can easily go elsewhere on the farm.
Truly free range chickens like these are going to have more dark meat (which I like). If you consume chicken this way, you don't consume it often, though you make great pains to extend it by making soup from the bones and other less-edible parts. You won't have enough of them to eat them every week or possible even every month.
Maybe if you can't produce something well in a commercially viable way, you shouldn't produce it at all?
Wisconsin 2022. Things have gotten bad since 2011. The economy recovered somewhat, employment didn't. Outsourcing, automation, productivity per person, and general economic stagnation have produced a dire economic situation, particularly among young people. The dream of productivity gains allowing people to work less has turned into a nightmare. It's more productive to have fewer employees than to let people work less. Few young people are getting married. Fertility is dropping. Resource prices, particularly for fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer, just reached an all-time high.
What do things look like? I think in 2011 we are at a crossroads: how to could we deal with a potential "Lights in the tunnel" chronic structural unemployment situation? More and more, this looks like a future reality. A full-time job might not be available to everyone in the future. The job system might collapse.
What will we rely on then? I think this depends on the regulatory climate. I think a favorable realistic situation would be that more and more people become self-reliant for basic needs such as food. For income they rely on various odd jobs and gigs. I see many people moving towards this system right now, including me. Young people with part-time jobs have more time than money, so they are more likely to engage in things like urban homesteading. They cook more at home and care more about things like eating good food, spending time with their families, and exercising. They are likely to live longer than their wealthier hard-working Boomer parents.
Unfortunately, the government seems to want to ignore or quash this sort of thing. For example, a Wisconsin judge ruling in a raw milk case said: "Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice." He later went to work for Monsanto. Many government authorities are part of this revolving door that keeps the government in tune with corporations.
I wonder what sort of system that philosophy leads to? I'm afraid Martin Ford describes it in Lights in the Tunnel. It's a government-based economy where corporations produce everything and in order to keep the consumer system from collapsing (unemployed people are terrible consumers), people are supported by government subsidies that are tied to government-approved incentives. Ford isn't sure what those incentives would be, but thinks they might involve paying people to be eco-friendly or something. Sounds like a dystopia to me.
We are at a crossroads here. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example. I share OWS's distaste for the fact our government has largely been captured by a small number of elites and corporations. But what are we going to do about it? I have a feeling the government will put social programs in place to distract people from the fact it hasn't changed, that it's still captured. And those social programs are often cleverly disguised corporate subsidies. Notice they never fix the systems that are broken, they just pour more money into them. Universities fail to provide student with real skills, so let's pour more money into them so they can be the new beer and circus for the lost generation. Dairy farms failing? Put in place price supports and regulations that reinforce the failed high-capital industrial systems.
And then we have to "protect" people from everything under the sun, which is a great excuse for all manner of injustices. I wouldn't be surprised if by 2022 you can't buy non-irridiated raw meat at the grocery store because the government has to "protect" people who might not cook it properly.
I looked at it and thought that this is why my creativity is crippled. I am afraid. I am afraid to invest in the things I love, because I know they can be unjustly taken away. I'd rather just not have them in the first place than have my heart broken.
I've eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge and it has poisoned me. I've read Mad Sheep, which is about a farm family that worked hard to bring a rare breed of sheep to the United States and build a business around them, before the government seized and killed them all based on seriously doubtful science. I've read about Joel Salatin's struggle to build a business in a world of regulations designed for giant corporate farms. I've seen footage of armed raids on small farms because people sold things that the government doesn't approve of. I've had friends investigated by Animal Control and Ag & Markets, because someone reported them. Their business suffers no matter if the accusation is correct or not, and the accuser faces no consequences. They can't even know who the accuser was. I've known farmers who lost land to eminent domain because the government decided they weren't important enough.
Why should I bother to work hard? Or to plant walnut trees on our farm in Wisconsin that won't bear nuts for twenty years? What if in twenty years everything has been taken away? It's no wonder young people are occupying wall street insteading of getting out there and building new and interesting things.
So yes, I'd like to see the end of crony capitalism, but let's be careful what we ask the Leviathan for.
At the conference, Dunkel talked about her frustration working in West Africa, where for decades European and American entomologists, through programs like U.S.A.I.D. and British Locust Control, have killed grasshoppers and locusts, which are complete proteins, in order to preserve the incomplete proteins in millet, wheat, barley, sorghum, and maize. Her field work in Mali focusses on the role of grasshoppers in the diets of children, who, for cultural reasons, do not eat chicken or eggs. Grasshoppers contain essential amino acids and serve as a crucial buffer against kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that impedes physical and neurological development. In the village where Dunkel works, kwashiorkor is on the rise; in recent years, nearby fields have been planted with cotton, and pesticide use has intensified. Mothers now warn their children not to collect the grasshoppers, which they rightly fear may be contaminated.
Fail. If you rely on insects you can be perfectly healthy. Near the equator, insects are an important food source for foraging people. There are even several species that are very rich in important fats. I'd rather eat locusts than a grain like millet, which is responsible for goiter in many Africas.
For more info on stupid food aid mistakes, I highly suggest The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by Wililam Easterly.
Coconuts of French Polynesia is a fascinating blog I found though the coconut Google group. Unfortunately, it's in French, so I read in in Google Translate. Since most of us eat coconut products imported and processed far away, we don't really think about what kind of coconut those foods came from. Apparently many traditional cultures use many types of coconuts. There are oil coconuts, water coconuts, medicinal coconuts, and fiber coconuts for example. I asked the author what these rare red coconuts taste like and he said they are very tasty and sweet, with a pink color inside.
Personally the only difference I have tasted in commercial coconut waters is between coconut water from Brazil and Thailand. The latter tastes so much better to me, particularly the Taste Nirvana brand. Perhaps someday we will be able to chose from coconut water from different places and different types of coconut.