On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

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As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

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By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

Don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin

I often shock people when I say ‘don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin‘. My rationale is that if all chooks were raised properly on the paddocks, we actually wouldn’t eat very many of them – our grandparents typically ate chicken once a year – and most chooks are not raised this way in Australia. And even those that are are typically breeds of chicken that struggle to walk with their over-sized breasts, and are more susceptible to heart attacks. I don’t personally believe that respects the ‘chickenness of the chicken’, hence the only chicken we eat are surplus roosters and spent hens from our own small house flock.

So imagine my delight by the introduction in Australia of the Sommerlad breed of chicken, a heritage hybrid that is vigorous and healthy and able to display all its natural behaviours out on the paddocks. We have the inspiring couple Bruce and Roz Burton of Milking Yard Farm growing them outside Trentham near us, and my friend and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) vice-president Jeff Pow and his wife Michelle McManus of Southampton Homestead in WA also include Sommerlads in their system.

And then equally delightfully, the wonderful Laura Dalrymple of ethical meatsmiths Feather & Bone up in Sydney wrote in detail about the meat chicken industry in Australia, and has graciously allowed me to re-post her excellent description here for your edification.

So read on – hopefully this will help you in your own journey to eat better meat, less.

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THE TRIBULATIONS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING: SOMMERLAD HERITAGE CHOOKS ARE BACK! 
Last time we wrote to you we featured Buena Vista Farm in a sad tale about the trials of sustainable farming. Mr not-at-all-fantastic Fox got in and slaughtered 100 chooks and caused great distress all round. Today, you’ll be pleased to hear, we’re doing the tribulation story.

We’ve carried on in an embarrassingly demonstrative way about these chooks before so we’ll try to keep it a bit more cool and collected this time round. Essentially, the Sommerlad Heritage chook represents a revolution in the meat chicken industry in Australia. Here’s a brief explanation of why we’re so excited.

This is how most meat chickens in Australia are raised.

Pictures of broiler chooks from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site

1. Breed
All meat chickens available in Australia are white feathered ‘broiler’ chooks from two main strains, Ross and Cobb. Over the last 60 years, these birds have been selected and bred for specific traits – disproportionately large breasts and the capacity to grow inside sheds at exponential rates so they’re ‘market ready’ by five weeks.

 Buena Vista Farm, December 2014: chick transport boxes, newly-arrived chicks.

2. Day-old chicks
The business of raising and distributing commercially viable volumes of day-old chicks for farmers across the country to grow out to market size is dominated by a small number of big, well-resourced poultry businesses. Breeding chickens are kept in large sheds with a standard ration of one male to every ten hens, their eggs are collected and incubated and then the day-old chicks are shipped out to farms to be grown out to market rates.

 Picture of a free range farm from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
3. Free range 
While these chicks are mostly raised in sheds, 20% of Australian farmers practice free range and pastured farming. This number is growing as consumer demand increases and this is a good thing because it means that birds have access to open land outside the shed during daylight hours. However, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’.

The majority of commercially available free range chicken brands in Australia, such as Lilydale, Willowton, Mt Barker, Macro and Bannockburn are certified by the Free Range Egg and Poultry (FREPA) organisation – 100 plus farms. FREPA’s standards stipulate a much lower stocking density than the conventional system and require access to range land outside the shed that provides shade and vegetation.  

In all other key respects including housing, equipment, ventilation, temperature, health practices, age at processing and slaughter practices, the FREPA standard defaults to the standard conventional code. Among other things, this means that FREPA accredited chickens follow the conventional standard which allows for birds to be ‘harvested’ as early as 30-35 days (4-5 weeks). Access to outdoor areas is given to fully feathered birds of approximately 21 days or three weeks of age. Given that they are generally harvested between five and six weeks that’s not a long time. 

 Pastured broiler chooks at Buena Vista enclosed by mobile electric fencing.

4. Pasture raised
The growers we work with practice ‘pasture raised’ farming. So they receive day-old broiler chooks and raise them exclusively outside on pasture at very low stocking densities and with access to shelter rather than the other way around. The key differences between pasture raised and FREPA free range birds are these.

  • Smaller groups of birds in lower stocking densities with permanent access to range lands – mostly moved to fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing.
  • The freedom to graze on fresh green pick, bugs etc providing additional nutrition and protein.
  • Greater capacity to express instinctive behaviour due to lower stocking densities. 
  • Life spans of eight to nine weeks, almost double the conventional standard.
  • More muscular, robust, deeply-flavoured product 

5. Feather and Bone chooks
Buena Vista Farm: groups of about 100 birds with very low stocking densities rotated onto fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing – broiler and Sommerlad flocks.

Hillside Farm: small groups of about 50 broiler birds rotated onto fresh pasture daily and contained in Joel Salatin-style chook tractors.

Inglewood organic: ACO certified – broiler birds kept in sheds at night, the sides of which are raised during the day to provide access to pasture. Fed certified organic feed and processed at eight to nine weeks. 

 Sommerlad Heritage chooks at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

6. Sommerlad Heritage pasture raised chook
The Sommerlad Heritage chook, however, is something altogether new. After many years of research working with different breeds, bird nutritionist and chook experts Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad have developed a new breed of chicken with strong bones and even distribution of meat specifically designed to thrive as a pasture raised bird in Australian conditions. This is a bird that retains many of the behavioural characteristics that have been intentionally bred out of the broiler which is designed to become relatively immobile in order to quickly fatten to market size. Among other behaviours, the Sommerlad birds have well-developed survival instincts and seek appropriate shelter at night so predation from foxes and hunting birds is reduced. They graze enthusiastically, take pleasure from playing and
respond vigorously to a life lived literally running around outside on pasture. They look pretty good too, particularly the very bizarre Transylvanian Naked Neck which is included in the programme because of its capacity to deal with hot Australian summers.

The Sommerlads have authorised a handful of farmers with demonstrated expertise in pasture raising chickens to grow these birds and, after we introduced them about a year ago, Adam and Fiona at Buena Vista Farm became part of that group. 

About half of the batch we’re receiving on Wednesday are pre-sold so, if you’re interested, please get your orders in quickly. Or don’t, because then there might be one left for us.

Sommerlad Heritage chooks including the Transylvanian Naked neck at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

Free-range eggs & sad bacon

Last time you ate out for breakfast, did your menu have free-range eggs, fair trade coffee, and organic milk on it? What about the bacon – was it free range? Probably not.

In fact, 70% of pork smallgoods in this country are made from frozen imported pork from pigs grown in even worse conditions overseas.

On the very minor chance that the menu said ‘free range’, did you ask where from? Because of course we all know a lot of ‘bred free range’ bacon is sold as free range, so it’s worth knowing the difference and which farms are which.

I’m not going to name names of cafes, providores, butchers and indeed producers who may be misleading you or failing to provide free-range bacon. You can work out who they are for yourself – just ask. Ask every time you buy pork, every time you eat out. Only if you keep asking (and saying no to everything except pork from pigs grown out on the paddocks) will things change.

Here’s a list of genuine free-range pig farmers around Australia to help you decode the answer.

But just what is it with the hypocrisy of ‘free-range eggs & bacon’ – that is, free-range eggs served with sad bacon – and our general willingness to accept it?

While coffee is the new black – one restaurateur was quoted saying, “While they’re at it, we’d love to know where the beans are from and where they were roasted. Heck, we even want to know who roasted them!” I want to know – what about the bacon?

On wine, I read: “The wine list is motivated by the notion of terroir and regionality – the idea that a wine can reflect, not only the grape variety and winemaker, but the soil and site from which it’s grown and nurtured. In the same manner a dish may transport you to a specific place, a wine with terroir can carry you to a far away vineyard.”

So what about the pigs? If they’re raised in sheds, I guess there is no terroir, and in sheds they’re all roughly the same breed (mostly Landrace, aka ‘pink pigs’), so no breed variety to taste there. And you won’t usually find intensive growers standing up and telling you all about their pigs – this is not an industry that favours publicity.

To be honest, I’m over it. If I’m eating out, I ask about the provenance of the pigs. If they can’t tell me, I don’t eat pork.

If you feel like you just can’t make it without bacon that morning, substitute feta.

I’m really glad that free-range eggs are so prevalent, but until free-range bacon is in all the cafes, I prefer my breakfast at home, thanks.

How to respond to vegan abolitionists

At a recent screening of Fair Food – the documentary, where I was to be on a panel after the film, a flyer was distributed at the door accusing me of being unethical for raising and killing animals for meat. It included a number of inaccurate descriptions of the stunning process and the usual highly emotive language I’ve come to expect from vegan abolitionists, and asserted that ‘going vegan is the only way.’

As you can imagine, the organisers of this event – the wonderful people who make up the Hills Food Frontier – were upset that the material was being distributed, and hurried to inform me so that I wasn’t caught unawares. After the initial sinking feeling in my gut passed, I said to Holly, ‘it’s okay, I’m used to vegan abolitionists. I’ve got this.’

When the panel took to the stage, I at first gazed deeply into the crowd of about 100 people to see whether the responsible party was out there taking aim. After a few questions it seemed that maybe they’d left or weren’t going to challenge me during the Q&A session, so I asked Holly if she minded if I raised the issue.

I asked the audience whether they had a copy of the flyer in question. Most nodded anxiously in my direction, a sea of worried eyes.

I said, ‘it seems that there is a vegan abolitionist here who feels they don’t have a voice and who disagrees with what we do at Jonai Farms. I’d like to invite them to join us on the stage for an open discussion about how we raise our animals – I’m happy to discuss all aspects of our system including the slaughter at our abattoir – you can ask me any question you like.’

Nobody stepped forward and some audience members said they believed that they had handed out flyers and left. I said that was a shame, and asked whether anyone else wanted to ask me about how we treat our pigs, and a thoughtful discussion ensued about the ethical rearing of animals for meat. A few vegetarians commented on how pleased they were that farmers like us are working to get animals back on the paddocks where they belong.

It was clear that the vegan abolitionist made no friends that night, and I didn’t suffer the all-too-common tarnishing that happens when livestock farmers react poorly to the abuse we cop from this particular subset of the animal rights movement. And that got me thinking that many other farmers would really benefit from a ‘how to deal with vegan abolitionists’ post. So here we are.

Let me preface this advice by highlighting that we promote principles of slow meat – eat better, less. Our society over-consumes meat to the detriment of the planet and animals grown in massive intensive systems. But that doesn’t mean the same as ‘all meat eating is bad’, hence disagreements with vegans…

So here’s the advice – first of all, in most cases it’s best not to engage with vegan abolitionists. They are the subset of vegans that not only think it’s immoral to eat meat, but that all meat eating (and use of any animal product) must be abolished. They draw comparisons with slavery and tell us that history will judge us harshly. I judiciously ignore or respond to initial attacks with ‘I respect your views, and I disagree with them.’

Online (it’s almost always online that they attack), I finish the interaction with ‘here’s something I prepared earlier‘ on how vegans & ethical omnivores should unite and ‘here’s another thing‘ on how if you want transparency in farming, you’ll have to put up with reality.

But in the rare case that it’s advisable to engage, I have a few thoughts as follows. First of all, don’t get defensive and don’t attack or make silly jokes about how they’re probably unable to think clearly due to lack of meat in their diet. They’ve heard it before and you mostly just look like an arse.

I would also suggest that you not posit the argument that many small mammals are killed in cropping systems and that’s blood on vegans’ hands. They clearly aren’t in favour of those deaths, we’re all implicated in those systems (vegan through to omnivore), and the scale of those deaths doesn’t compare with the number of animals killed purposefully in industrial animal agricultural systems. So sure, everyone has blood on their hands, but this is hardly a compelling argument for omnivorism.

Remember: these people think we’re all murderers, and that tends to colour their view, so principles of civility are often totally disregarded. But here goes:

 

There is no reason to eat meat – you can live without it.

The quick answer is: I agree. And you can also live without bananas, apples, and potatoes, but most people don’t.

The slightly longer answer: For many or even most people this is true at a personal health level. For some it is not and eating meat is important to maintaining optimal health.

But at a systems level, the planet can’t live without animals and plants don’t grow without phosphorous and nitrogen – both abundant in livestock manure. A healthy agroecological system incorporates animals and some of them are then available as food for humans. For more detailed information on this topic see some of my earlier posts on agroecology.

(One vegan actually proposed that superphosphates were the answer to taking animals out of agriculture. Um, yeah, mining can solve everything, right?)

And so incorporating meat into a balanced diet makes good ecological sense as well as nutritional, and properly raised and prepared meat is delicious.

 

You’re speciesist!

Yes, I am. I believe there is a hierarchy of species and I’m really happy to be at the top of that ladder.

 

Would you treat your own child in this way?

No, I don’t think it’s okay to eat children.

 

You wouldn’t kill your dog for a stir fry, there’s no reason you should kill a pig either.

It’s true, I wouldn’t kill our dogs for a stir fry, because I was culturally conditioned not to eat dogs so I have a kind of irrational ‘ick’ response. But I have no issues with other cultures who eat dogs, so long as the dogs are raised respectfully in a manner that allows them to express their natural behaviours.

 

How can you say you ‘love’ your animals and then kill them and eat them?

I don’t say I love my animals, actually. I feel affection for them, I find them quite amusing, charming, and sometimes annoying and quite a lot of work, and I know that we are growing them for food.

 

 

Questions & abuse I don’t respond to (but if I did here are some amusing possibilities):

 

Why are you so heartless?

I haven’t eaten enough heart.

 

You are ‘sick freaks’ / ‘Neanderthals’ / ‘animal abusers’ / ‘murderers’.

Sigh.

 

You have no compassion.

Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.

 

I’m more evolved than you.

One day you’ll be me.

 

On fair food & ‘sustainable intensification’

When we promote ‘fair food’, ‘ethical farming’ or even the more watered-down ‘sustainable farming’, are we ergo suggesting some systems are not fair, ethical, or sustainable? Of course we are.

Food that is produced by a farmer who cannot earn a living even though she does it full time is not fair.

The number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over family farms. (Endnote 2) In fact, there were 19,700 fewer farmers in Australia in 2011 than in 2006, a fall of 11% over five years. ABS

Food that is produced by confining animals in cages and sheds for their entire lives is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced by routinely pouring toxic pesticides and herbicides until soils and waterways are depleted and polluted for everyone is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced by workers who are not paid a living wage is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced but intentionally not available to hungry people is not fair.

 

 

Food-stuffs that cause health epidemics like diabetes & heart disease are not fair.

 

 

Fair is a simple word to capture what is generally meant by ethical, but there’s a spectrum of sorts. Intensive livestock farming advocates will disagree on at least one of my definitions of what constitutes fair food. It’s important to work out for yourself what you reckon is fair and then do what you can to help there be more of that in the world.

I’ve had some on twitter ask me if because we call ours an ethical farm, does that mean that others aren’t ethical? I’m answering you clearly now – by my ethical standards, some are not operating ethically.

I’m a free-range pig & cattle farmer, and well on the record here & elsewhere advocating to raise animals on pasture, not in sheds, because I think it’s unethical to confine animals in sheds or cages. If you’re not raising pigs or poultry in sheds, odds are my view of your farming system is less certain and more open to the complexities of what an ethical system might look like.

I don’t like to call anyone ‘unethical’ in total as I can’t really imagine anyone who is wholly unethical. But I am happy to refer to certain practices such as caging animals as unethical. (For the record I also abhor pet birds in cages – what could be more spiteful than taking away any living creature’s capacity to fly?) Trying to lead an ethical life doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes make unethical choices, me included.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. There are complexities in dairy farming that I admire dairy farmers for grappling with every day. My lovely dairy-farming neighbor has worked for years to find better solutions for his bobby calves by raising a number of them as beef cattle to a year old, or selling them to locals to grow out for their own consumption. He rarely sends any off to the saleyards younger than six weeks because it bothers him knowing that they don’t transport well and therefore suffer.

He also follows most of the conventional practices of tilling, fertilizing, sowing & spraying his paddocks. While I disagree with some of his system, I certainly don’t judge him without perspective and nor would I accuse him of being unethical. What I’d love to see him do is be able to command a fair price for his milk so he could reduce his stocking levels and consequently his paddock inputs. So long as the processor continues to pay him 30-something-cents per litre that probably isn’t going to happen.

At Jonai Farms we’re in the relatively luxurious position of having set up a system outside of the traditional supply chain which means we’ve been price makers right since we started selling direct to the public. And our position improved markedly when we took on the butchering ourselves – supply chain control brought over 25% of our profit margin back to us. It means bucketloads more work, but we get paid a fair wage to do it.

Those who are trying to make a living in long supply chains like my neighbour are not in such a position, especially in Australia where market power is so unfairly concentrated in two major supermarkets. And so farmers are always being forced to look for more ‘efficiencies’, which usually means ‘produce more for less’. It seems to me that this is probably the primary reason many farmers are attracted to ‘sustainable intensification’ – they truly want to grow things in a sustainable way but are being forced to intensify their systems in order to make a living.

The notion that ‘sustainable intensification’ is going to solve the issue of food security around the world has been rigorously challenged by plenty of people far more qualified than me – hunger is predominantly a problem of governance and distribution, not inadequate production. We don’t actually need to double production by 2050 to feed a growing global population, we need to ensure we don’t waste what we grow and that we distribute it fairly. Even the UN is on the record saying that small-scale agroecological farms are the best way to feed the world. Let’s therefore shelve food security as a flawed argument for ‘sustainable intensification’.

So what’s really at stake is feeding Australian (and other) farmers and our families. That’s a worthy enough aim without clouding it with grand claims of achieving global food security. So how can farmers feed their families?

Don’t produce more for less, produce less for more.

By that I mean we must value the land, animals, and workers and ensure their health is paramount in every agricultural system and then ask eaters to pay a fair price for our efforts.

All of which is easier said from a farmer in a miniscule supply chain selling direct to eaters. The bigger challenge is for the majority who are under pressure from centralised market power and long supply chains…

What do you think? How can we address the serious structural imbalances between farmers, processors, distributors and supermarkets in Australia? How can we support all farmers to make a living growing food in the fairest ways possible?

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Thanks to Lynne Strong of Clover Hill Dairies for inviting Fair Food Farmers United (FFFU) to respond to the discussion started on her blog about production systems and fair food. This will be cross-posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance’s blog & FFFU page.

While I personally am not an advocate for sustainable intensification, I am a big fan of farmers and respect everyone who is working hard to produce food fairly, even if we sometimes differ in how we think that will be achieved.

If you’re interested in fair food (which is pretty likely if you read my blog!) you should check out the many fabulous events being held all around Australia for Fair Food Week October 10-19!

More on Transparency: Canaries in the Mine

I’ve already expressed my opposition to any proposed ag gag laws and related desire for more transparency, so today I’m going to be brief and blunt as I extend it.

Intensive livestock farming needs to stop. Here are a few reasons why:

  • it concentrates effluence, leading to water, air and soil pollution as well as loss of social amenity for those who live nearby;
  • it drives increased meat consumption (which in turn drives increased monoculture grain production to feed livestock instead of people, which in turn drives further deforestation, etc, ad nauseam) – the only reason chicken and pork are consumed in the vast quantities they are is due to growing numbers of these animals in sheds;
  • it forces you ‘to get big or get out’, which has meant a concentration of farming to fewer, bigger farms and the loss of regional livelihoods across Australia (and the global north). There were about 50,000 pig farmers in Australia in the 1960s – now there are just 660, and yet production is higher now;
  • it leads to a higher incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which makes human illnesses harder to treat (not to mention non-human illnesses);
  • it’s wrong to confine an animal in a cage for the entirety of its life.

The first four points are virtually indisputable, so I’ll say a couple of things about the last one.

Some people obviously believe it is not wrong to raise animals for meat in cages. Their ethical code differs from mine, just as a vegan abolitionist’s code differs from mine.

I say it’s unethical to cage animals. Vegan abolitionists say it’s unethical to kill and eat animals.

I have pursued a life as a free-range pig farmer because I believe so strongly that people should have the choice of genuine pastured meat to help them stop eating animals raised in sheds and cages.

I call myself an ethical farmer because we raise our animals on the paddocks in a way we believe is ethical. I do not say this to suggest all other farmers are unethical, however, as I’ve said, I do believe it is unethical to raise animals in cages.

If you call your produce ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural’, are you suggesting everyone else’s produce is rotten and fake? No? I didn’t think so.

Some animal rights activists spend their lives trying to take footage of what happens in intensive farms because they believe so strongly that it is wrong to confine, kill, and eat animals.

These activists are targeting intensive livestock farms, as well as live export. If you’re not confining animals on land or on a ship, they’re not likely to sneak in and film your operation. And if you share your own story, open your doors, and crucially, do what you say you’re doing, it’s very hard for someone else to catch you out.

They are the canary in the mine, people, and if you don’t let the animals out you might get shafted.

I would genuinely like to see a gentle transition that supports family farmers as they move away from intensive animal farming, not a shutdown of the industry that ruins lives while trying to protect animal welfare. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but it does need to change.

Politicians may make more laws, but whistleblowers will find a way to uncover what they believe is an injustice, so why not just stop the injustice?

Let them eat grass!

PS Russ Patterson wrote a response to my original transparency post on Ann Britton’s blog. I’ve responded to his arguments there.

No need for ag-gag laws when there’s radical transparency

The debate is raging once again around animal welfare activists trespassing on private property to obtain footage of conditions in intensive livestock farming. The activists’ stated aim is to expose what they believe are unconscionable practices in the rearing of animals. It seems the debate recently was re-ignited by a column by a celebrity personal trainer.

A number of farmers have reacted with concerns about biosecurity on their farms and risks to their entire herd from disease and distress, as well as dismay at invasions of their privacy, and some have expressed support for so-called ‘ag-gag laws’ as introduced in the US. These laws make it illegal to film or photograph practices on farms without permission from the owner. There’s also been a mildly amusing open letter from ‘Bill the Farmer’ to the celebrity above asking her to live under constant video surveillance.

The hyperbole around factory farming and ag-gag laws includes allegations of activists as ‘terrorists’, factory farms as places of ‘horror’, and vegan ‘secret agendas’.

Calling people who trespass to film animals in cages ‘terrorists’ is rather puerile and misinformed. Call them trespassers – because they are. Call them activists – because they are. Hell, call them criminals – because for those found guilty of said alleged trespass, they are.

But ask a recently arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan if they think animal welfare activists are terrorists and I suspect you might gain a little healthy perspective.

Inflammatory rhetoric aside, I’d like to consider what’s at stake in this debate. I’ll start by setting out some terms I’d like to use.

I usually steer away from the phrase ‘factory farming’ as I know it gets most intensive growers’ hackles up. To be clear, I don’t avoid it because I think it’s wrong (raising hundreds or thousands of animals in sheds in an industrial model is, in my view, rather accurately referred to as factory farming). But I want everyone in the discussion to be able to listen, so I try to avoid red flag phrases. I therefore use ‘intensive farming’ (and for the record, free-range farming is known as ‘extensive’).

Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms
Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms

I won’t refer to ‘animal rights activists’, instead I’ll use ‘animal welfare activists’, because the movement is a broad church, and not all people who believe it’s immoral to cage animals share the view that non-human animals have rights as such. I also know intensive farmers who consider themselves animal welfare activists. I’m a free-range pig farmer, and I’ve considered myself an animal welfare activist since I was 19, but a vegan abolitionist would say I am in fact a murderer. And yet I would say we’re both animal welfare activists.

I will use the label ‘ag-gag laws’, as I think they’re well understood now, and we don’t have a common alternative of which I’m aware. I appreciate that those who support these laws may take umbrage at the phrase, and ask that you bear with me.

As I see it, there are a number of stakeholders in this debate. There are the animals in intensive systems. There is the soil and water on and around the farms. There are the people who work on these farms, including those who own the farms. There are the families of the owners – I’m thinking particularly about the family farms where they live somewhere on the property. And then there is the local community, and the broader community of people (from vegan to omnivore) who have differing levels of concern about the ways animals are raised on farms, whether they eat meat or not.

Of course there are property rights, and trespass is illegal in Australia. So we already have a law that prohibits entering another’s property without permission to obtain footage of their practices.

I accept and share the concern about fear and feelings of violation at someone trespassing on your property with an intent that is contrary to your interest. Anyone who has had their home broken into knows the feelings of vulnerability that arise after a burglary or theft. If a vegan abolitionist entered our farm without our knowledge to film our pigs, I would be worried about their other possible motives, whether my children were out on the paddocks by themselves at the time, and  whether they took anything except images away with them.

But they have no need to do that on our farm, because we practice radical transparency. We have documented and outlined on national radio all of our farm management practices in great detail. And we invite the public in regularly – in fact people are welcome any day of the week that we’re here (which is most).

You’re welcome to photograph or film anything you see while you’re here, and when I find myself thinking, ‘oh, I hope they don’t take a photo of that mud patch where the pigs have turned the soil completely because we’ve been a bit slow in rotating them to another area,’

I reflect on how we really just need to move the pigs, not stop the visitor taking a photo.

What we need are not more laws that will stop people trying to expose what they believe is an injustice. We already have laws to protect your right to property and privacy.

Ag-gag laws must surely re-affirm the public’s concern that farmers have something to hide. Instead we should do as Australia Pork Limited (APL) did last year when footage was secretly filmed of an intensive piggery in NSW – APL got footage of the same piggery in daytime and stood by it.

I personally was still unhappy with what I saw, and so continue not to buy nor eat intensively-raised pork, but I applaud APL’s transparency to enable me to make an informed decision.

Bangalow Sweet Pork is another example of an intensive pig farm that has been prepared to be transparent about their farming practices. In 2009, they opened the doors for a Super Butcher video, and showed everything from their farrowing stalls to the group housing for growers. Again, seeing all those pigs confined in that fashion doesn’t sit well in my ethical code, but the information is there to empower the public to make ethical decisions.

The court of public opinion is real, and whether we like it or not, largely determines what is and is not acceptable. It’s a blunt jury, often led by a vocal minority, and yet when the minority exposes practices to the majority in a compelling way, the majority start to demand change.

Look at the growth of free-range eggs in Australia. Whatever issues there may be with the certification systems (and they are many), we didn’t have free-range eggs just 20 years ago unless you were a farmer or one of the rare suburbanites with chooks in your backyard. That movement has grown enormously, and we even have ‘caged eggs’ labeled as such.

How I would love to see ‘caged pork’ written on labels!

It is surely in nobody’s interest to criminalise those intent on exposing injustice, rather than welcoming greater scrutiny of industrial agriculture’s impact on animals?

The more farmers practice radical transparency, the more the public will trust us, and the more we will continue to improve our practices. And if we’re transparent about our practices, we can combat the invisibility and lower animal welfare standards of imported pork smallgoods in Australia (70% of the total).

Radical transparency is a powerful motivator to do your best, and I for one welcome it.

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‘Bred free range’ is NOT ‘free range’

‘Do you have free-range pork?’

‘Yes, it’s all free range!’

‘Oh, excellent! Which farm is it from?’

‘Otway Pork.’

‘Otway’s not free range.’

*sadface*

This has become a regular occurrence for me. Next I school the butcher, providore, or waiter on the difference between ‘bred free range’ (aka ‘outdoor bred’) and ‘free range’ and suggest they have a look at Otway’s website, where they themselves clearly state that they are ‘bred free range’. Ditto Western Plains.

Confused yet? Fair enough. Fortunately, I’m here to help. 😉 Let me explain the three systems for raising pigs we have in Australia so you need not be confused anymore.

Indoor/Intensive

Pigs are kept indoors their entire lives on concrete or slatted floors. In some systems the breeders are kept in individual pens with limited movement. In others pigs are kept in groups. Some of these systems use both group and individual pens. The industry is moving away from gestation stalls (where sows are kept immobile for their entire gestation period of 3 months, 3 weeks & 3 days) due to consumer demand for higher welfare standards.

Outdoor Bred (aka ‘Bred Free Range’)

Breeding sows are kept outdoors, and farrow (give birth) in huts with access to the paddocks until they’re weaned, typically at 4 weeks. The weaners are then kept in groups in open-sided straw-based sheds, also called ‘eco-shelters’, where they spend the rest of their lives until slaughter.

Free Range

All pigs are raised entirely outdoors, with free access to shelter and wallows at all times.

Within these three systems for raising pigs in Australia, there is diversity amongst farm management strategies in regards to tail docking, castration, vaccinations, weaning, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in feed, sow management, age for slaughter, and stocking density.

The peak body for pig farmers Australia Pork Limited (APL) has clear definitions for each system, and sets (voluntary) standards through the Australia Pork Industry Quality Assurance Program (APIQ). There are standards for ‘APL Gestation Stall Free’, ‘Outdoor Bred’, and ‘Free Range’.  As I understand it, after much discussion within the industry, APL endorsed ‘outdoor bred’ and rejected ‘bred free range’ as a label as it was deemed confusing for consumers who are trying to choose free range.

Unfortunately, most outdoor bred growers are still using the term ‘bred free range’ on their marketing materials, and butchers and provedores just as much as consumers are often confused by the distinction (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intentionally misleading customers).

In three separate butcher’s shops over the past two months I have asked where their pork labeled free-range was from and been told either Otway Pork or Western Plains, which are outdoor bred systems, not free range. I know of others who have had the same experience. I always tell the butcher that they’re wrong, and they apologise and profess ignorance.

I’m not interested in critiquing butchers, nor intensive or outdoor bred systems here, but I am interested in eaters being able to make informed choices. As I’ve written before, ethical decision-making is deeply reliant on the availability of accurate information. If you understand the difference in the systems and which one is in front of you, you can decide for yourself whether you are happy with that animal welfare standard. But if you are misled about the system, someone is taking that choice away from you, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

I recommend that for those who truly want only free-range pork, you do a couple of simple things:

1) always ask whether the pork is free range, whether it’s on a menu, in a butcher’s shop, or in a deli;

2) if they say it’s free range, ask the name of the farm. If it’s Otway or Western Plains, it’s not free range (there are other outdoor bred growers as well, but these two are by far the largest in Victoria);

3) print this out and take it to your butcher, cafe, or deli if they tell you an outdoor bred farm is free range – they may simply not know the difference.

4) buy direct from farmers, either at farmer’s markets or online. I have a list of free-range pig farms in Australia, as does Flavour Crusader.

Choice is great. We can all choose how we want to eat, and what sort of farming we support, so long as we can rely on accurate information. You may choose intensively-raised or free-range pork, caged or pastured eggs, conventional or organic fruit and veg, or a wholly vegan diet, but not if those of us who produce and sell the food don’t tell you the truth of what’s in it.

Ethics of Scale

The following is what I had planned to say at last week’s Fair Food Future event at Fed Square, and while I may have deviated from the text, I think I managed to cover the key points below. A big thanks to the Locavore Edition and the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance for hosting this event and coordinating the first ever Fair Food Week in Australia!

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Last year my mum went through treatment for cancer. While I’d worried about her and Dad’s ‘convenience’ diet for years, when she got a blood cancer it dawned on me that a lifetime of fast food hadn’t been fair to her blood – her body’s building blocks. And the treatment – chemo – attacks blood cells – the very things it tries to rescue & I thought:

‘only humans would cure cancer with a carcinogen.’

So when I got to Oregon to look after her I fed her blood with whole foods. Her doctor and nutritionist told us it didn’t really matter what she ate and that the little plastic bottles of protein shake the pharmaceutical rep had sold them would be just great. We kept her blood counts mostly in the safe zone with eggs, nuts, loads of green leafies and endless berry yoghurt smoothies, but it was no easy task in the face of the fortnightly onslaughts from the life saving carcinogenic treatment for cancer.

And that’s what we’re doing to our food system –

we’re ‘saving’ soils with manufactured solutions to manufactured problems

& it’s time we stopped manufacturing and went back to farming.

We need to feed our soils & our souls with every agricultural act, with every bite we take.

We need an ethics of scale, not an economy of scale.

We need to eat less cows, not grow them in petri dishes.

Imagine if eaters everywhere scale up your ethics & demand fair food with your choices & your dollars, & farmers demand fair food with our choices & our prices – we charge you what it costs to grow animals out on the paddocks – there won’t be as many – we’ll need to eat more vegetables.

Farmers will pay workers fair wages – your tomatoes won’t be $1/kg & from Florida or Italy where labour conditions are regularly described as slavery – they’ve achieved economies of scale at the expense of their ethics.

Farmers will focus on building their soil holistically, because its health will be accounted for in this ethics of scale – the planet is on the ledger.

An ethics of scale doesn’t get mired in single issue concerns, it’s systems thinking – soils, vegetables, animals, citizens.

So when you say animal welfare is your biggest concern, and think of pigs and chickens in cages unable to move or express any of their natural behaviours for their short, miserable lives, I also think of how the economies of scale forced farmers to find ever cheaper ways to raise animals because eaters wouldn’t pay $25/kg for something that took six months to raise to eating size – six months of somebody’s labour, and the labour of those who grew the feed for those animals, and the labour of those who transport, slaughter, butcher, and transport again.

And of course the supermarkets take their cut, sometimes the biggest cut – and I wonder how on earth the middle man ended up in control of prices and systems? All supermarkets do is store and sell what others have produced – they are not producers, they are (rather expensive) storage facilities.

Small producers like us at Jonai Farms want nothing to do with them and their expensive shelf space that values economies of scale at the expense of ethics. And happily, we no longer have to rely on them – we have the new breed of connectors – like FoodOrbit here today, and Food Connect, and Eaterprises, and Feather and Bone… and the many other wonderful online technologies (blogs & twitter & Facebook, oh my!) that enable us to connect growers and eaters in a much shortened chain.

When we think about supply chains and Australia’s supermarket duopoly, it can get pretty depressing…

Regulation has failed us. Certification has failed us. We’ve lost faith. We don’t trust each other enough because everything is obfuscated in our rather unfair food system. Regulation & certification are supposed to be important safeguards when we can’t see & judge for ourselves whether the system is fair.

It’s time we make the entire chain transparent again, and farmers like Ben Falloon at Taranaki, and Stuart and I are doing just that, along with so many great producers in our regions like Greenvale, Warialda, Bundarra Berkshire, Plains Paddock… I could go on at length, but I do recommend having a look at FlavourCrusader’s lists of growers like us across Australia…

We are legion, and as Ben says, we are certified by the community.

We can’t just turn back the clock – the population is so big now it’s hard to make everything visible but ethics are hard & that’s okay. Democracy is hard too but we wouldn’t give that up, would we?

Access to food is a human right just like access to housing, yet we don’t demand to live in a mansion at the price of a shack.

So why do we demand to pay so little for our food?

Paying less than the cost of production is not a human right when you can afford to pay and it’s forcing farmers into economies of scale where ethics are compromised.

Just as you may choose factory-farmed pork or poultry when money is tight, so may farmers choose to farm them that way when the budget demands.

In an ethics of scale, everybody flourishes and nobody gets sick from their food, no apple farmers from years of pesticide exposure, no pigs fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics packed in tightly on concrete floors, & not my mum whose lifetime of meals has come out of boxes & tins, instead of soil & skins.

In an ethics of scale, fair food is everywhere. It’s fair for soil and for blood, for crops and for critters, for growers and for eaters.

Ethical ham & cheese scones

sconesAustralian scones slightly bewildered me when I first arrived here 21 years ago – ‘so they’re biscuits, right?’ But as I’ve shared in my locavore bacon & eggs, biscuits & gravy recipe, they may be virtually the same recipes, but they are eaten in very different ways, with very different things. And so having given you my savoury brekky biscuit recipe already, I will now share a savoury American scone recipe just to really confuse you. 🙂

American scones are typically enormous things, and I remember most of them being a slightly bulbous triangular shape. They were a morning staple in my years at UCSD, where I’d wander in my homemade plaid cotton trousers and wildly mismatched tie-dye t-shirts into the Grove to linger over a philosophical discussion with ‘the Wanderer’ (his real name was Brian, but he… wandered) and other nascent intellectuals, slurping at a precycle/recycle mug of mocha java and nibbling for hours at an oversized sweet scone – my favourite was blueberry at the time.

The overwhelmingly savoury palate I developed through my thirties led to a singular decline in my interest in such scones, or any kind of muffins or (goddess forbid) cupcakes. But as we prepared to host Eat Your Ethics at Jonai Farms, my mind turned immediately to ham and cheese scones – what could possibly be more suitable to commence the day of exploring all things pig?

So here’s the recipe, adapted from one of my favourite American cookbooks for baking, The Cheese Board Collective Works.

3C unbleached flour

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

Pinch cayenne

Pinch of salt flakes

2T fine polenta

125g cold butter, cut into smallish pieces

250g sharp Cheddar, cut into 1cm cubes

250g ethical ham, cut into 1cm cubes

1/2C cream

1C yoghurt

 

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line baking sheets with baking paper.

Mix flour, baking soda, cayenne, salt & polenta. Cut in the butter until it’s the size of small peas. Gently mix in the cheese and ham. Make a well and add the cream and yoghurt until just combined. A little loose flour should still remain in the bottom of the bowl.

Place the dough on a generously floured surface and pat it into a rectangle that’s about 3cm thick. Cut it as you like into squares or triangles of your preferred size.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until light brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.