Improving nutrition by avoiding the grocery store

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It may seem surprising that the grocery store is not the place to go to find the healthiest food. Thankfully there are other options.

The last couple of weeks we've explored two branches of the industrial food chain – conventional farming and big organic – and highlighted some of the problems with each, according to the research done by Michael Pollan, and delineated in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Further to the problem of grocery store food, this morning I was reading about how Tyson Foods is suing the USDA in order to be allowed to use the label "Raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans" in its chickens, even though they inject the antibiotic, gentamicin, into the eggs. They are fighting to be allowed to deceive us with their label – to make us believe that their chicken is antibiotic-free. Over the last few years I have pointed out several deceptive practices that food companies use to make food found on grocery-store shelves appear healthier than it actually is, including:

So, staying away from grocery stores that sell us these foods can do a lot to improve our health. And even Industrial Organic, although far better than conventional, can be problematic because they are frequently still using industrial methods such as feeding cattle organic grain which makes the cattle sick. One of the reasons industrial farming methods came to pass in the first place (in addition to the obvious profitability), was the worry about being able to actually feed the growing world population. There is another way.

In his book, Michael Pollan introduces the reader to an entirely new kind of farming – or perhaps I should say "the old way" of mixed farming with a twist, which is highly productive, making it possible to feed large numbers of people with highly nutritious food from the land AND actually improve the quality of the soil the longer the land is farmed this way. No more compromising nutrition to put out more food, no more torturing of animals in the name of feeding humankind, no more pesticide run-off into the waterways damaging our drinking water or the habitat the fish we eat live in, no more relying on oil to run our whole agricultural system. This is a completely sustainable system that follows the laws of nature, and actually increases the health of the animals and plants that are a part of it, and it encourages plant diversity, the opposite of what mono-farming does. I think it's brilliant, and would encourage all farmers to consider it!

Michael Pollan introduces us to a permaculture farmer, Joe Salatin, who runs Polyface farm in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. On 100 acres of grass, using low technology methods, Mr. Salatin produces per season 30,000 eggs, 10,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 250 hogs, 1000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits – an enormous amount of food produced in a way that improves the soil each year. Joe sees himself as primarily a grass farmer, because it can be argued that all flesh is grass. (I think all flesh is soil, actually.) The key to how his farm works, is keeping the grass at its healthiest. His only technology is a movable electric fence, which he uses to fence off a portion of his pasture in early evening, into which he introduces his cattle, which then have a day to graze that area. The next evening, he fences off another portion of pasture, into which the cattle move. If grass is over-grazed it cannot survive, and one winds up with a mud-pile. So, by moving the cattle daily, he not only prevents the grass from dying, but actually encourages it to form a stronger plant, much like how pruning a bush does. He is converting grass and sunshine into meat and dairy – using solar energy rather than fossil fuels.

Exactly three days later, he introduces the chickens into the same area that the cows were. The chickens go straight for the cow paddies, which are now full of plump maggots that are about to hatch into flies. Introducing the chickens at that time gives the chicken their favourite food, spreads the cow manure around via chicken feet, prevents a fly problem, and also further nourishes the grass with chicken droppings. The cows and chickens both get to eat their favourite and most healthy food, and they get to do what they do best – be cows and chickens, living their life to the fullest. And the grass, cut down by the cows, sheds some of its root system, which is turned into soil by the earthworms, soil bacteria and fungi, and fertilized by the animal waste, grows again very quickly, making it possible to repeat the process in about 5 weeks. And the food that comes from this low tech method of farming is brimming with nutrition, unlike the food that comes from a factory farm. What makes this farm so productive is the symbiotic relationship between the animals and the grass, resulting in improved soil fertility and improved plant diversity year after year. What a boon to countries struggling to feed themselves, like those in Africa, for example!

Joe Salatin refuses to sell his food via the industrial food chain, even to a store such as Whole Foods. He is trying to build local economies where "bar-codes are unnecessary". His customers come to his farm to buy eggs and chickens, and he sells at local farmers' markets, through metropolitan buying clubs where groups of families put in a large order for food twice a month, through CSAs or "Community Supported Agriculture", where customers subscribe to the farm and get a box of produce a week all summer, and to chefs in the neighbouring towns, who love the quality and flavour of his food. His customers are those that want to know exactly where their food is coming from, how it is grown or raised, and demand highly nutritious, flavourful food. His customers relearn that all food is seasonal – that beef, lamb and pork are fall/winter foods, and that chicken is a summer food. These people have opted out of the industrial food chain in order to better nourish their families and to support a style of agriculture that gives more back to the planet than it takes away.

I agree with Michael Pollan, who says that what we choose to eat is a political act. What we decide to put in our mouths either feeds a system that results in the degradation of the planet and our health, or one that improves it.The industrial food chain relies on the false idea that in order for humankind to win, nature must lose. It also relies on the ignorance of its customers with respect to its practises, and sells based on price alone. They want their customers to believe that an egg is an egg, or an apple is an apple – that the growing method has no impact on its nutrition. We know that this is untrue. What the animals we consume are fed, alters the composition of their fats. A strong argument can be made that it is this fat-ratio alteration that is behind a lot of the sickness we suffer today. The nutrients or lack thereof in the soil greatly impacts the nutrition in the plants we eat. By opting out of the industrial food chain as much as possible and growing some of our own food, purchasing "bar-code-free food" by supporting smaller, local farmers at farmers' markets or through weekly local organic food-box programs, we can nourish our families and our local economies. This does require some work to source out food, and also to spend time cooking, but becoming a part of the local "slow food" movement is well worth the effort.

Feel free to watch Michael Pollan discuss these ideas in this 17 minute video on Youtube, or read Michael Pollan's fantastic book – it is well worth it.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to www.wellnesstips.ca.

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Pollan, Michael The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Penguin Press, New York, 2006.

Eisen, Michael Michael Pollan Interview The Progressive Nov. 2008.

Gutierrez, David Tyson Foods Injects Chickens with Antibiotics Before They Hatch to Claim "Raised without Antibiotics" Natural News.Com Nov. 9, 2008.

Howden, Daniel Organic farming 'could feed Africa' – Traditional practices increase yield by 128 per cent in east Africa, says UN The Independent Oct. 22, 2008.

Lowitt, Kristen A Comparative Case Study of Nova Scotia Farmers’ Markets: Exploring Connections Among People, Places and Food Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada Sept. 2008.

Henderson, Paul Raw deal. . .or are they just milking the system? Chilliwack Times Nov. 4, 2008.

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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