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In Praise of the Pasture

5 Jun

Note: The following post contains information about commercial beef production that readers may find disturbing. While I encourage you to read on, I ask that you do so at your own discretion and with an open mind. Thank you.

Before the corn industry took America by storm following World War II, cattle and other herbivorous, pastured animals were raised in fields using rotational grazing. This grazing practice divides a pasture into several sections and moves the herd between sections regularly throughout the year to prevent over-grazing. In return, the cattle provided their rich manure to help replenish the pasture year after year. This manure was also used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. In fact, the working farm was very nearly a perfect cycle with no waste.

However, once World War II ended, the U.S. found itself left with an overabundance of synthetic nitrogen which had been used to make bombs. In an attempt to use it, it was given to farmers to use on their fields. With synthetic nitrogen now replenishing the fields, there was no longer any need to pasture animals. That same land could be used for growing more corn. Thus, the animals moved from the farm to the feedlot, where nature’s balanced cycle was indelibly broken. Farmers were no longer forced to rotate crops in order to keep nitrogen in the soil and corn became the golden child of the commercial agriculture industry. It has since made its way into over 2/3rds of consumer products.

And as for those big steer in the feedlots?

A typical commercial steer is given access to “feed” fairly frequently while being contained in a pen with hundreds of others like it. I put the above word in quotes because I’m not sure that this diet can necessarily be considered food to an animal that is, by nature, an herbivorous creature. Here is what the average steer gets:

Flaked corn, liquefied fat which is often in the form of beef tallow, molasses and urea (a protein supplement made from the same synthetic nitrogen fertilizing the fields), alfalfa hay and silage, Rumensin and Tylosin (antibiotics), and synthetic estrogen.

What’s important to remember is that steer evolved eating grass. Their stomachs contain a unique fermentation-like chamber where they can actually convert grasses into a form of protein. They’re not biologically equipped to digest corn and force-feeding it has created the host of problems (like bloat, acidosis, and infection) that cause the antibiotics to be necessary. In fact, cattle are so ill-equipped to digest this food that it can only be given to them for 150 days at most before they must be taken off of it. According to Dr. Mel Metzin, a staff veterinarian at a feedlot in Kansas, 15-30 percent of feedlot cattle are found to have abcessed livers at slaughter, and in some places the figure is as high as 70 percent. The antibiotics are also needed because the cows sleep in the very same pen where they eat, which often means sleeping in their own manure for extended periods of time. While not a pleasant thought at the start, it becomes even more reprehensible when you consider all of the hormones and antibiotics the average steer is laying in on a regular basis.

These antibiotics make their way into our meat and unfortunately have caused antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like e-coli to evolve. All of this doesn’t even take into account the fact that the corn being fed to these non-corn eating animals is littered with chemical fertilizers and has been genetically modified to produce maximum yield (some new strains even have built in pesticides! Eee…).

If this sounds overwhelming to you, breathe a sigh of relief as I tell you that you absolutely do not have to support this even if you are an omnivorous human like myself. Below are the URLs of the two local farms that I choose to get my bison, pork, and poultry products from. I provide their websites to use as a reference for what you should look for if you want to find a sustainable farm in your area. Notice how open these farmers are about guests visiting and how freely they describe their agricultural practices. Farms like these can provide you with quality meat/poultry products from animals that are raised on the foods their biology programmed them to eat, without any added antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified food.

www.smithmeadows.com

www.cibolafarms.com

Please note that I choose bison over beef purely for the health reasons (higher protein content/lower fat) and because it is more readily available at my local market. I have nothing against sustainably raised cattle. If you’re really interested in finding a sustainable source of quality meat and are having trouble, please leave a comment and I will be more than happy to help you in your search. After all, I’m in library school…I can always use practice on those reference questions!

-Neen

References

Kessler, David. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009).

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2009) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2007).


Why Should I?

1 Jun

Over the weekend, I took some time to consider the question, “Why do this?”

It was tough when I began to think about writing this particular blog post because there is a whole host of reasons why I’ve chosen to eat clean and as local as possible. Much of my reading as of late has been devoted to this topic and has inundated me with a great many statistics. While these are certainly important, what I am trying to do and the motivation behind it can be explained in much simpler terms by someone who has done far more research:

“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and “value” or they can nourish a food chain organized around values–values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure as a kind of vote–a vote for health in the largest sense–food no longer seems like the smartest place to compromise.”
-Michael Pollan

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors ate the food provided by their local habitats. Even in (relatively) recent history, items transported from other places were rare commodities, saved for special occasions and relegated to things which simply could not be produced in the local climate.

With the advent of modern technology, we’ve learned to do it all quickly and efficiently. But is this really the best way to do things? Consider that most commercially grown products are bred for quantity (thus those watery, mealy tomatoes that pop up in the store in January) and visual appeal (but they looked so nice on the shelf!), and it becomes clear that what is being provided in the grocery store is nothing more than a mirage. Sure, the produce section looks full even in the middle of winter, but at what price? By the time those tomatoes reach the store, they’ve been shipped hundreds (if not thousands) of miles and their nutrition has degraded significantly. And since it’s the middle of winter, you guessed it, you’re going to pay more for them anyway. Paying more for an inferior product doesn’t make sense, does it?

So, as Pollan puts it, you have to put forth the effort. This means buying tomatoes from a local farm when they are in season and preserving them as best you can. While canning, dehydrating, and freezing all cause nutrient loss, products grown using sustainable agriculture practices contain significantly more vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants than their commerically grown counterparts. So, while you’ll still lose some in the “saving” process, you’re left with more than what you’d get from the grocery.

Even much of that can be avoided by eating what is in season at any given time. Googling farms in your area can give you an idea of when certain products peak and what time of year you can expect to have certain vegetables and fruits. It’s really forced me to try some new veggies, which is never bad! Plus, many farms are open for “pick-your-own” fruits and vegetables, which is a great way to get kids involved in healthy cooking as children are more likely to eat something which they’ve had a hand in choosing and preparing.

And yet, while all of these are fine arguments for local food, none capture what it is that drives me: I feel better. I am very curious to see how my blood work comes up this week after finishing iron treatment and really devoting myself to better eating habits. But it’s not just a physical feeling of well-being either. It’s embracing my place as a citizen of the world. It is accepting that food, in its most basic form comes from a complex web of relationships between living beings. It is understanding that while the lifestyle comes with its sacrifices, it embraces the harmony between those living things that provide us with sustenance and a sense of community.

While I’m not a member of a religious faith, this connection to what fuels us has brought me a profound sense of peace and has reminded me that nature is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

The swimmer in hot water (and why we should cool it down).

6 Feb

In the news this week is one of my very favorite athletes, Michael Phelps. Unfortunately, the reason he is in the news isn’t positive. Pictures surfaced of Phelps that depict him inhaling through a water pipe, a device commonly used to smoke marijuana.

I personally didn’t feel disappointed to hear this news and a lot of people around me were a little shocked that I didn’t think it was a big deal. Those of us who grew up with the D.A.R.E program had it burned into our brains that drugs were bad, dangerous, and only used by mean, awful people. At some point along the way, I found myself very curious as to what the “un-simplified” facts were, and after doing a lot of reading, I became of the opinion that marijuana should be legalized and taxed in a way similar to alcohol.

First there’s the economic impact. An article in the December 18, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times reads, “A report released today by a marijuana public-policy analyst contends the market value of pot produced in the United States exceeds $35 billion — far more than the crop value of such staples as corn, soybeans and hay.”

We are in the midst of an economic crisis. Legalizing and taxing marijuana could save taxpayers an incredible amount of money and invite a new revenue stream into the economy. In fact, according to Dick Startz, Professor of Economics at the University of Washington, “Washington state would save about $105 million a year if we legalized marijuana (U. Washington News, 6/3/05). He adds that, “An extra $100+ million would be nice for the state budget. But an even better economic argument for legalizing marijuana is that it would move the legal line, so that relatively safe drugs like caffeine, alcohol and marijuana are all on one side of the law and the truly dangerous drugs, such as crack and meth, are on the other.”

So it’s not just economically helpful, it almost has a “reverse gateway” effect. And the argument has support from some very well-read and reliable sources. Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard reported that, “Replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcoholic beverages would produce combined savings and tax revenues of between $10 billion and $14 billion per year.” His report was endorsed by over 500 distinguished economists.

Then there’s the medicinal side. A federal report concluded that there was evidence of marijuana being beneficial to those suffering severe nausea and pain. The Institute of Medicine states that there is clear scientific evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of, “cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.”

In 2007, a group of researchers at Harvard University found that THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, reduced the growth of lung cancer in mice (Forbes Mag., April 17, 2007). A year later, German researchers at the University of Rostock discovered that certain components in marijuana actually inhibit tumor growth, a conclusion also reached by scientists at Compultense University in Madrid in 2000.

A common argument related to the above is that marijuana is harmful to people’s health. According to a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that there was no correlation between marijuana use and three types of cancer. The results surprised Dr. Donald Tashkin, a veteran of marijuana research, who said, “We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use. What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.” Another study published in the Journal of International Neuropsychology found that there was no correlation between long-term, heavy marijuana use and brain damage. Much like Tushkin, lead researcher Dr. Igor Grant was taken aback. “We were somewhat surprised by our finding, especially since there’s been a controversy for some years on whether long-term cannabis use causes brain damage.” What’s important to keep in mind is that both of these studies were done with adults—but I’ll address why that makes a difference later.

And finally, there’s the infamous “Gateway Drug” theory. This has been debunked so many times over that it was hardly worth finding sources for. Over 12 years, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that teen marijuana use had no bearing on later drug or alcohol use. Several other studies that can be found here actually predict quite the opposite. Regular marijuana users do not, in fact, move on to other drugs. What is true is that using marijuana as a teenager can put the individual in contact with others who use and sell other, more dangerous drugs. Legalizing and taxing marijuana then actually closes the “gateway.” There’s no evidence suggesting that prohibition has done anything to curb marijuana use. Still, if I were the one considering how to legalize and tax marijuana, I would prefer it have an age-limit of at least 18. While many studies have debunked the negative effects of marijuana in adults, the effect could be very different for a teenager whose body, particularly the nervous system, is still developing.

But really, the bottom line in all of this is that adults ought to be able to make their own decisions. We let, nay encourage people to overeat (I firmly believe that the 2000 calorie Heath bar milkshake from Baskin Robbins which contains a half-pound of sugar is more dangerous than marijuana) and have legalized a drug (alcohol) which is extremely likely to be abused and is very addictive. What is it then that holds us back from making marijuana legal? Well, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 wrote that it has a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. I would say that research has come a long way in nearly 40 years, and that such outdated laws need to be revisited in light of overwhelming new evidence that contradicts the Act.

Michael Phelps smoked marijuana, it’s true. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t consider marijuana a banned substance, so there’s no issue as to whether he earned his medals or not. Phelps’ accomplishment is still one of the greatest in sports history, and there’s no reason that kids out there can’t still look at him as a role model. If parents are truly concerned about their children, then they should use this story as an opportunity to talk to them about drugs in an intelligent manner. May I suggest the book It’s Just a Plant: a children’s story of marijuana to get the conversation headed in a healthy direction. It is important that kids know that like alcohol, marijuana isn’t something safe for them. But I also think it’s crucial that the discussion evolve as children become teenagers. “Don’t take drugs because it’s dangerous” is fine for a child because they can’t understand all of the issues, but it’s not right for a teenager. Level with them and say, “Look, these are the facts. When you’re an adult, you’ll have to make your own decision and accept whatever consequences come with that decision.”

I don’t agree with U.S.A. Swimming suspending Phelps from competition for 3 months. I think it’s excessive and unwarranted based on such a small infraction. But until we as a society make a decision to stop demonizing marijuana and see it for what it really is: a plant that could potentially keep cancer cells from growing/help cancer sufferers live better lives, then we’ll never be able to really focus on researching those possible treatments. To ignore the possible benefits based on misconceptions is foolish.

So there’s my two cents (more like 2 dollars…I did go on a bit) on the matter. I don’t really want to take up a ton of space putting my reference list here, but I am glad to direct any of my readers to any of the articles I mentioned in the post. Just leave a comment.

That’s all for now, folks!

-Neen

Second-Class Citizen

10 Nov

It hit me hard to read this sentence on a friend’s Facebook profile last week:

“[friend’s name] is a second-class citizen.”

It hit me even harder to see variations of that same phrase trickle across the message boards, forums, and social networking sites that I frequent on a regular basis. In the aftermath of an election that breathed fresh hope into America, my friends were hurting. Many of them were those jubilant celebrators dancing in the streets, but their tears were only partially ones of joy.

Last week, people in three states across the country (Arizona, California, and Florida) lost the right to marry the companion of their choosing. It was California, however, that shocked so many people. Proposition 8 wasn’t expected to pass in the overtly Democratic state, but it did so by a narrow margin of 52%. A sense of betrayal washed over members of the gay community who wondered why their fervent support of Barack Obama’s plan for change meant so little to the 70% of African-Americans who voted for the ban in California. Why would those who know the painful sting of discrimination vote to thrust it upon another group?

Add to that the estimated $20 million donated by the Church of Latter Day Saints to support the ban and a clear picture presents itself. Again, why would a group that has historically faced so much prejudice want to place a similar burden on another? Religion, if not the entire reason why Proposition 8 passed, is most certainly at the forefront of excuses for intolerance.

Normally, when asked about my faith, I describe myself as “respectfully ambivalent.” I don’t claim to know who is right or wrong (or if anyone is even close!), but I admire those who truly live the concept of “walking by faith, and not by sight.” It takes deep commitment and an excruciating amount of trust to defend something that simply cannot be proven. There is beauty and value in that.

But there is also beauty and value in the principles men and women have fought to uphold in this country. The Constitution reminds us that the country is a land free for religious expression but free from it as well. The separation of church and state exists to protect the free expression of religious beliefs AND to prohibit the government from favoring or endorsing a particular religion. In a land referred to throughout history as a melting pot, citizens come from a variety of faiths. Allowing any one faith to become a ruling class with moral superiority skews the vision of the country.

Unfortunately, “Christian” values have recently been overwhelmingly presented as preferential. I put “Christian” in quotations because those values which are being pushed at the American citizens are only one interpretation of Christian beliefs. The Christian values I grew up with (as a result of a Catholic family and education) were things like “love one another,” “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and above all, “God is love.” If God is truly love personified, than he is likely disappointed that his teachings have been interpreted to promote intolerance and discrimination.

An interviewee on the news argued that many people just wanted to have marriage defined as a union between a man and a woman, and that she still supported civil rights for gay couples. Other proponents claimed that “civil unions” would provide the gay community with the very same benefits. A quote from the Orange County Register swiftly debunks that argument:

“[People in civil unions as opposed to marriages may not] File a “joint” tax return, Receive health benefits from a spouse’s employer in states where civil unions are not recognized, Receive Social Security survivor benefits, Receive citizenship through relationship. Receive military veterans benefits, Receive service-related death benefits, Receive housing and burial benefits, Receive recognition of the relationship in event of transfer to a non civil union state, Receive stepped-up basis on property from inheritance, Receive optional tax deferral on IRA accounts.”

Other reasons for supporting the movement included the fear that children would be subjected to education about gay marriage or that it inhibited religious freedom. Michael Pulos in his letter to the OC Register writes, “First, if the proponents of Proposition 8 were actually concerned with education and religious freedom, they would have drafted a proposition that addressed those issues. The proposition would say ‘same-sex marriage will not be taught in schools’ or ‘churches won’t be forced to marry same-sex couples.’ The fact that they didn’t — and that the text is silent on these issues — strongly suggests that the motivation behind Proposition 8 lies elsewhere. Second, because Proposition 8 doesn’t address the issues of education or religious freedom, even if it passes, Proposition 8 does nothing to advance the causes it claims to be advancing. In other words, Proposition 8 by its own language can’t deliver on its campaign promises.”

In short, the argument for support the proposition doesn’t match the text. Unfortunately, the issue boils down to lingering misconceptions about gay lifestyles, fear of losing the “traditional family” (which, by the way does not and has not ever existed), and plain unadulterated bigotry. People at the polls were entrusted with the responsibility to vote based on an issue of the state and not one of religion.

The passing of Proposition 8 was not a victory for anyone—it was a slap in the face of civil rights.

Today, Governor Schwarzenegger rekindled the hope of its opponents when he said, “I think that we will again maybe undo [Prop 8], if the court is willing to do that, and then move forward from there and again lead in that area.” He also expressed that it is unlikely that the proposition will have any effect on the 18,000 gay marriages already performed in the state.

Last week, I encouraged readers to come together regardless of what is different among us and embrace our bond as Americans. We cannot achieve solidarity as a nation while certain groups are still less equal than others. There is no moral authority to be gained by creating laws that fly in the face of the words “All men are created equal.”

That is not American.

Americans are the brave men and women who have fought for decades for civil rights. They are those who know that we have the potential to be the greatest nation in the world. They are the individuals who continue to build this country every day and believe that this is a land where anyone can live their dream.

And they are the people who will never rest until no one feels like “a second-class citizen.”

A New Day

7 Nov

Hi all! I haven’t been able to write in awhile due to a massive overload of schoolwork. Today, however, I wanted to share with all of you an excerpt from my journal written earlier this week. I hope everyone out there is doing well and I promise some pictures from a trip to Pittsburgh, an anniversary trip to Baltimore, and a Monday Night Football game very soon!

My best to all of you,
Neen

November 5, 2008

Nearly my whole life, I have been told that I am naive. I concede that I prefer to seek out the good in people, but refute wholeheartedly that it blinds me from reality. Yesterday, I saw my country come together in a way that I’ve never witnessed before. I remember distinctly how we clung to one another fearfully following the events of September 11, 2001, but I have never seen so many of us unite in jubilation.

Across the nation, I saw videos of citizens dancing in the street with tears streaming down their faces. I saw men and women of every race, many of whom who realized for the first time that the American dream can be real for them. Future history books will remember this election as one where the American people denounced the politics of fear and voted instead for hope.

Yes we can.

I do not deny that the road ahead is rocky, but a step has been taken in a positive direction. One day at a time, we must rebuild our economy and repair our relations with the rest of the global community. We awake today to new responsibility. We must not become complacent. It is time to hold our elected officials accountable, remembering that these civil servants represent all of us.

In a speech earlier this year, now President-elect Obama said, “We are the change we have been waiting for.” Our moment has at last come, and we look toward the future with a new kind of hope–one that is almost tangible. I have confidence in our newly elected leader and hope that our nation can come together regardless of party affiliation, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. We are ONE country, and can no longer define ourselves by what divides us. Instead, we must choose to remember what unifies us. We are all Americans and we are all in this together. We can either fight that and crumble from within, or we can decide to embrace it and make this nation stronger than it has ever been.

In his speech last night, Obama encouraged the American people to “summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”

I truly believe it’s possible. Let’s face this new day together. Let’s be a better future.

Let’s be that change that we’ve been waiting for.

Yes we can.

Yes, we will.

Celebrate Your Freedom to Read

19 Sep

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell

Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I wanted to take up some space on my blog today to get the word out about an event I feel is extremely important. Considering the impact that the upcoming presidential election could have on censorship, it’s crucial to remember the principles of freedom guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution.

The books listed above represent a tiny sample of the books that have been challenged or banned in the United States from 2007-2008. Other titles challenged in the past have included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Shel Silverstein’s poetry volumes, A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Every year since 1982 the American Library Association, the Office of Intellectual Freedom, and countless publishing and bookselling organizations have sponsored Banned Books Week. This event takes place from September 27 to October 4th this year and reminds Americans not to take our freedom to read for granted.

“Banned books week celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.” (ALA Website)

Although hundreds of books are challenged every year, most are not banned due to the efforts of librarians and concerned citizens who recognize the importance of upholding this essential freedom of choice. The ALA reminds us, “Imagine how many more books might be challenged—and possibly banned or restricted—if librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country did not use Banned Books Week each year to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”

There are many ways to support banned books week, such as checking out a favorite challenged or banned book from your local library or supporting local librarians if you hear about a challenge in your area. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper reminding readers to support the free exchange of ideas and materials. For other ways to celebrate your freedom, click on the image below.

Remember, “closing books shuts out ideas.” Support Banned Books Week!