The arguments over whether there are any additional benefits to consuming and growing such food are remnant of the global warming debates. It seems every day a new study on the benefits of eating local comes out, only to be refuted the next day. Still, it is increasingly apparent that what we eat and how that food is grown, produced and distributed effects our health, the local economy and the environment.
“It’s our health, our environment and the economic advantages for farmers engaged in it,” Rick North founder Campaign for Safe Food says about the benefits of sustainable agriculture.
Consuming food that is grown in an environmental way, whether it be organic or produced at the local farm, may have a wide range of health benefits.
According to Animal Welfare Approved, farms in the United States slaughter over 9 million animals for food each year. The vast majority of those are farms not like Bill Stuart’s where cows roam freely and feed on grass, but instead on industrial farms where cows are often packed like sardines into tiny enclosures where they are often unable to stand upright. The federal government calls these types of farms Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). The government defines CAFO as “new and existing operations, which stable or confine and feed or maintain for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period more than the number of animals specified.” In addition,” there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season.”
Grass fed animals like Stuart’s eat all or the majority of their diet from grass from grazing. Some grass fed animals like Stuart’s are also free-range meaning he allows them to roam instead of confining the animals in one pasture.
In contrast, organic-fed animals may eat a mixture of grains and/or grass, but are organic certified because the food the animals eat is organic certified and no hormones and/or antibiotics are used in their production.
CAFO animals, such as cows, are fed a grain-based diet of corn, soy, and other grains that produces fatter animals in a shorter time. Often the animals are given antibiotics and other hormones, and residues of those hormones can wind up in the meat sold at the store.
For Bill Stuart, there is little question his grass feed beef not only tastes better, but is healthier too.
Stuart says his beef has less fat, and less calories than industrial beef, as well as more omega-3s. Omega- 3s are thought to protect against disease and improve heart health. Grass beef also has more vitamin A, E, and antioxidants.
“Grass fed beef tastes better even than organic beef,” Stuart said.
Animal Welfare Approved also suggests that the small spaces CAFO animals are confined to create stressed out animals that affects the quality of the meat produced. The meat is often more likely to carry bacteria such as E. Coli that leads to food poisoning in humans.
According to Animal Welfare Approved, over 300 pounds of meat and poultry products were recalled between 1994 and 2007 due to bacteria such as Listeria and E. Coli.
In addition to the health benefits of grass fed beef, the past 20 years has seen an astonishing increase in the rate of obesity in the United States. According to Centers For Disease Control, in 2009 only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent.
Environmental friendly food advocates, such as Rick North, Director of the Campaign for Food Safety, says the expansion of farmers markets has made people more aware of the health benefits of sustainable food. North comments, however, that he believes it is women that will help the movement go mainstream.
“Our main target audience is women, especially mothers,” North said. “They ‘get it’ more than most people. “
Communities where industrial farms move into town often see a decline in the health of residents. Respiratory problems, skin infections, and nausea are just a few of the side effects that linked to living near factory farms where runoff and pooling collection of animal waste is often a problem.
Still, the debates about the health benefits are unclear, and it is unlikely there will be a definitive answer for sometime, because knowledge of sustainable farming and what health benefits it may offer are still relatively new.
For every study that comes up talking about the benefits of local produce or grass fed beef, there is another one that says there isn’t any difference. But people who buy local food almost always say it tastes better than store bought food. In some ways that makes sense, after all buying strawberries from a farmers market instead of a supermarket, where it was likely transported hundreds of miles, has to be fresher.
Libby Koponen, a Connecticut resident, who first got into the local food craze after having Stuart’s grass feed beef at a restaurant in Stonington, Conn., tells people you can see the difference.
“By eggs from a farm and a supermarket cook the farm egg next to the store bought egg and the orange color the yolk of farm egg turns is just amazing,” Koponen said. “I never knew eggs were suppose to look like that until had farm eggs.”
Jason Sobocinski agrees.
“Healthy food for which the source of its inception can be seen. With large corporations running most of the food industry the only way we can know what we’re actually eating is what we’ve been told is to buy local, small production foods.”
If the health and taste benefits of local food are at all unclear, the environmental benefits are more apparent.
Sustainable agriculture is specifically about growing and producing food that is sustainable and therefore often better for the environment.
For one, eating sustainably saves land from development. If, as the Connecticut Farmland Trust says, Connecticut loses about 8,000 acres of farmland each year, than supporting local farms contributes to protecting that land.
According to the USDA, the US meat industry produces 61 million tons of waste each year and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, animal waste from the meat industry has polluted over 35,000 miles of rivers in over 22 states.
The contaminated water can’t be good for humans, but it also containments water is used for farming, fishing and other activities that are essentially putting it back into the food industry. It also may be the case of fish and aquatic wildlife that have died rapidly in areas near industrial farms such as in North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay.
In addition to the runoff of animal waste, the hormones and antibiotics often found in the animals on industrial farms become part of the runoff from the farms. The runoff of hormones and antibiotics affects plant growth, animals, and the health of rivers and streams and once again can make its way back into the food system, because now the hormones and antibiotics are in the soil used for growing crops as well as in the water used for irrigation and drinking water.
Factory farms can also affect air quality, because the use of heavy machines produces carbon dioxide, as well as methane gas from the animals, both of which can contribute to global warming.
In contrast, small family farms such as Bill Stuarts and Pauline Lords practice sustainable agriculture methods.
“We rotate the grazing areas giving each area a year to rest in between,” Stuart said. Lord concurred saying that White Gate Farms rotates crops giving the soil time to recover.
“The goal is to preserve the land so we can farm on it again next year and so that the farmland will last long-term,” Stuart said.
Of course Stuart’s grass fed animals may produce more methane in their lifetime than a factory farm raised animal because his cows for instance are not slaughtered until the reach the age of four instead of at 18 months. However, Stuart Farm also has a lot less cows at any even given time than the average factory farm.
Over the past decade the environmental movement has begun to include food. We constantly hear buzzwords such as eating sustainably, locally and organically. The pros and cons of local food are debated heavily, as is their expense. This piece, broken up into several different parts, traces the production of farm-to-table food in Connecticut, its benefits and cons and provided thoughts on whether our the local food movement is scalable. Read Section One, Two, Three, Four and Five.