Industrial agriculture, characterized by vast swatches of genetically engineered corn and soybean fields and livestock raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), is swiftly destroying the planet and worsening human health in the process. In exchange for cheap meat, we’re paying a hefty price, one that may be infinite in the damage it’s causing via pollution.
It’s clear the industry is unsustainable, and now it’s been blamed for causing a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s incompatible with life. Before the destruction continues, it’s essential that transitions to regenerative agriculture occur. The good news is that such changes appear to be rapidly occurring in areas of the U.S.
Tyson Foods Blamed for Causing Largest Dead Zone on Record
In a report released by environmental group Mighty Earth, massive manure and fertilizer pollution churned out by meat giant Tyson Foods is blamed for causing the largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico.1 According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the area of low oxygen, which can kill marine life, is nearly 9,000 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey.2
The dead zone is primarily the result of nutrient pollution from agriculture in the Mississippi River watershed. The excess nutrients promote the growth of algae that decomposes, using up oxygen needed to support life. Mighty Earth singled out Tyson and another meat giant, Smithfield, as top contributors to the dead zone for several key reasons:3
- Tyson produces 1 out of every 5 pounds of meat in the U.S. and is the only company with processing facilities in each of the states contributing the highest levels of pollution to the Gulf of Mexico
- Tyson and Smithfield have the highest concentration of meat facilities in the areas with the highest levels of nitrate contamination
- Tyson’s feed suppliers are responsible for the majority of grassland prairie clearance in the U.S., which “dramatically magnifies the impacts of fertilizer pollution”
According to Mighty Earth, “To identify the companies responsible, the investigation maps the supply chains of the top meat and feed companies, and overlays it with data showing elevated nitrate concentrations in waterways that are experiencing high levels of fertilizer pollution.” They continued:4
“The report also mapped where these supply chains are driving destruction of natural grasslands, including native prairies, putting new regions at risk for fertilizer pollution. America’s largest meat company, Tyson Foods, stood out for its expansive footprint in all the regions suffering the worst pollution impacts from industrial meat and feed production.
Tyson produces one out of every five pounds of meat produced in the United States, and owns brands like Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park and Sara Lee, in addition to selling to fast food retailers like McDonalds. The company is consistently ranked among the top polluters in America.”
Rotational Grazing Is Making an Appearance in the Midwest
The report urges Tyson and other meat giants to encourage their grain suppliers to use cover crops and reduce fertilizer usage. This is a start, but as demand grows for meat raised on pasture via small, local farms, it may prompt more widespread changes.
A two-crop planting cycle of corn and soybeans, along with CAFOs that raise one type of meat, has become the dominant model in the Midwest, thanks to the federal farm policy that subsidizes these crops and regulations that make local meat processing nearly impossible. These favors to corn, soy & meat industries come with devastating consequences to human health and the environment.
However, slowly some Midwest farmers are exploring other options, including rotational grazing, which allows them to bring in premium prices for their meat by catering to customers who are looking for food raised via natural, environmentally friendly and humane methods. NPR’s The Salt recently reported on Wendy Johnson, an Iowa farmer who runs Joia Food Farm, on land rented from her family (which runs a conventional corn and soybean farm):5
“Johnson’s approach relies on grazing different types of animals on the same land in a carefully controlled pattern, which ideally will enhance the land they roam. When used with several different animals, the technique is sometimes called multi-species grazing.
Johnson plans to rotate sheep through a series of small paddocks, followed by the meat chickens. The animals will eat what they please and fertilize with their waste. Laying hens and turkeys roam freely about her farm and yard. And she plans for pigs to eventually graze on organic crop fields where their natural rooting behavior should help improve soil health.”
Bison Are Also Making a Comeback, Helping to Restore Grasslands
Bison ranches are also flourishing in some areas, such as in Montana at Turner Enterprises Inc., where vice president of ranch operations Mark Kossler says, “The grass business is the business we’re in.”6 The National Bison Association, which recently launched a “Bison Hump Day” campaign to encourage people to eat bison meat on Wednesdays, hopes to increase the bison population in North America to 1 million in the next decade.
As with grass fed beef, free-ranging bison also have the potential to increase natural grasslands and reduce pollution in the U.S. Dave Cater, executive director of the National Bison Association, told Delicious Living:7
“We think that more bison on the land is a good thing, not only for people that love to eat bison and people who love to raise bison, but for the land itself. This is the animal that helped shape the ecosystem of North America. We think that bringing more bison back helps restore acres of native grasslands and range lands.”
Raising bison on natural grasslands, helping to restore the environment, could be called the opposite of raising cattle in CAFOs. And it’s catching on with some big-name food giants interested in cashing in on the growing bison market, including General Mills. The company recently acquired EPIC Provisions, a “mindful meat company” whose top seller is a Bison Bacon Cranberry Bar made with grass fed bison.8
EPIC Provisions is changing the game in producing products made only with meat from suppliers following regenerative agricultural methods. What’s more, they’re helping potential producers who want to change their practices to meet their higher standards. General Mills clearly sees “green” with EPIC, in more ways than one.
So far, the company’s founders have promised not to sell out their greener ways now that they’ve been acquired by the food giant. “In our case, it’s not about a large company changing EPIC. It’s about EPIC changing General Mills,” they told New Hope Network.9
Grass Fed Producers Meet With Amazon
If there were ever a sign that grass fed meat and dairy are catching on, it would be the “secret” meeting that took place between Amazon and a select group of grass fed farmers. Speculated to have taken place at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, a grass fed farm that has reached somewhat of celebrity status among those in the know, it’s unclear exactly what was discussed at the meeting — but several theories have been put out there. As The New Food Economy suggested:10
“Amazon’s move toward grass-fed is straight out of the standard tech industry playbook: identify an industry struggling with bottlenecked demand, and use transformative tech to get people more of what they want … This is a huge opportunity for Amazon, which could use its logistical sophistication and enormous financial resources to build from scratch the supply chain that grass-based ranchers need.
… But skeptics have a right to be concerned, too. Are the values of regenerative farming compatible with a steamrolling, publically traded tech titan? And what about the cultural piece: Can rural, mission-driven ranchers really partner up with Silicon Valley’s most unctuous wheelers and dealers?”
Whether or not Amazon’s move to get into the grass fed market will turn out to be positive remains to be seen, but it’s clear the growing industry is in need of a helping hand. While still thought of as a niche market, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York released a report showing that grass fed systems could be expanded — enough so to compete with the polluting and inhumane concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) currently supplying the majority of U.S. beef.11
Two major hurdles stand in their way, the first being CAFOs, which have access to more efficient supply chains and slaughterhouses. For instance, farmers must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and laws place special restrictions on grass fed slaughtering.
If a grass fed rancher doesn’t have access to a slaughterhouse, he cannot stay in business. This shrewd strategy effectively maintains the CAFO status quo because grass fed farmers are often forced to ship their animals hundreds of miles for “processing” — a move that’s both costly and stressful.
Imports of grass fed beef, which make up 75 percent to 80 percent of U.S. grass fed beef sales by value, are another hurdle. Australia and Brazil can produce grass fed beef at a lower cost, as their climate allows for year-round grazing. U.S. consumers may not know the grass fed beef they purchase isn’t from the U.S., however, because as long as a piece of imported beef passes through a USDA-inspected plant, it can be labeled as a “Product of the USA.”
Again, it’s unclear whether a joint venture between Amazon and grass fed farmers would increase transparency or, on the flip side, secrecy. “If Amazon’s grass fed supply chain ends up being as off-limits as its data centers,” The New Food Economy noted, “that won’t be an encouraging sign for the future of agriculture.”12
Grasslands and Cover Crops Are Crucial to Saving Our Soil and Water
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) convenes sessions around the U.S. in an effort to improve soil health and teach farmers how to use less fertilizer and produce the same, and in some cases better, yields. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Phil Robertson of Michigan State University explained three “game-changing” practices that could help make soils “net mitigating,” meaning they capture more greenhouse gases than they emit.13
- No-till cultivation, in which crops are grown without plowing
- Advanced nitrogen fertilizer management, or applying only minimal amounts of fertilizer
- Cover crops
The latter strategy alone, cover crops, can virtually eliminate the need for irrigation when done right. The cover crops also act as insulation, so the soil doesn’t get as hot or cold as it would if bare. This allows microbes to thrive longer. Also, the soil biology heats up the soil, which can extend your overall growing season in colder areas, and it helps prevent soil erosion and reduces the need for agricultural chemicals.
Even in the Midwest, where most fields are still covered in conventionally grown corn and soy, change is brewing. Mother Jones spoke with David Brandt, who farms 1,200 acres in Ohio and has transitioned to no-till and cover crops, with impressive results, including drastically reduced usage of fertilizers and herbicides.
“[T]here are three things that set Brandt’s practices apart from those of his neighbors — and of most American farmers. The first is his dedication to off-season cover crops, which are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year.
The second involves his hostility to tilling — he sold his tillage equipment in 1971. That has become somewhat more common with the rise of corn and soy varieties genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, which has allowed farmers to use chemicals instead of the plow to control weeds.
But most … use ‘rotational tillage’ — they till in some years but not others, thus losing any long-term soil-building benefit. Finally, and most simply, Brandt adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt. Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.”14
While it would seem that farmers would be scrambling to adopt a more diversified cropping approach, along with beneficial strategies like cover crops and no-till, many barriers stand in their way. There can be significant costs in the short term to stray from their usual rotation, for instance, and planting cover crops requires more management and work hours.
Further, many farmers lack the practical know-how to convert to more complex crop rotations, as well access to research showing that doing so would be beneficial. Federal farm policies also support the old system, as Mother Jones noted, “[F]ederal crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffer their losses, giving them little short-term incentive to change.”15
Where You Get Your Food Matters
Sourcing your foods from a local farmer is one of your best bets to ensure you’re getting something wholesome. And, you’ll be supporting the small farms — not the mega-farming corporations — in your area. Ideally, support farmers who are using diverse cropping methods, such as planting of cover crops, raising animals on pasture and other methods of regenerative agriculture.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has also introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed dairy,16 which will allow for greater transparency and conformity.17 The standard is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.
An AGA logo on a product lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.18 I strongly encourage you to seek out AGA certified dairy products as they become available. In the Midwest, the Kalona SuperNatural brand is the first dairy brand to become AGA-certified.
Another option is to join a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Doing so can make a big difference in how well a small family farm can survive and thrive. As a CSA member, you buy a “share” of the vegetables the farm produces, and each week during growing season (usually May through October) you receive a weekly delivery of fresh food.
Joining a CSA is a powerful investment not only in your own health, but in that of your local community and economy as well. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate CSAs and other farm-fresh foods in your area:
EatWild.com provides lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other organic produce. Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.
Weston A. Price Foundation
The Weston A. Price Foundation has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass-fed meats across the U.S.
This website 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.
A national listing of farmers markets.
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.
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.
The Cornucopia Institute
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.
If you’re still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws. California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.