Sustainable Farming Trumps Industrial Methods

The need to produce more food in some regions of Asia during the past fifty years was—for a time—achieved by increasing the yields of grain crops by as much as 2.5 percent per year using industrial farming methods.  These methods relied on high-yielding hybrid seeds and more recently seeds of genetically modified (GM) crops, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and intense irrigation.  But by 2004 annual growth rates of crop yields began declining, e.g. the annual growth in yield for rice crops dropped to as low as .5 percent.  This finding and other data led some experts to note that the higher yields of industrial farming were temporary and unsustainable.  Top soil erosion, deteriorating soil quality, and depleting water supply were some of the major consequences, as well as risks to human health caused by ingesting toxins from the chemicals of industrial farming.

A 2012 report by the respected international aid organization ActionAid says that farming methods in Asian countries are now at a crossroads.  Sustainable, or ecological, farming methods are gaining increasing acceptance around the world as the most viable way to promote food security, better health, and an improved environment.  Farmers who practice sustainable agriculture use natural methods to build the soil, increase water retention and control pests. Currently, most farmers who use sustainable methods are small scale or family owned. They participate in the local economy and most of their produce is consumed locally.

By contrast, industrial farming usually focuses on planting vast tracks of land with a single cash crop destined for export markets (mono-cropping).  In addition to using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, industrial farmers are increasingly using GM seeds in an effort to boost yields while using less labor. One of the principal traits of commercialized GM crops is resistance to Round-Up herbicide, resulting in vast quantities of this toxic chemical being sprayed on crops.  

In addition, the increasing use of synthetic pesticides introduces toxins into the water and soil that kill many beneficial living organisms besides the pests they target. Crops absorb those toxins, which puts our health at risk when we eat them.  Finally, industrial farmers rely heavily on irrigation techniques that deplete local reservoirs rapidly.  Many industrial farms are run by large corporations that pay workers substandard wages and don’t recycle their profits back into the local economy.

People are becoming increasingly aware that organic foods are better for their health. But the benefits extend much farther than that. Organic, sustainably grown food not only benefits the individual, it also benefits local families, local economies and the health of the planet as a whole. Down to Earth is committed to supporting family farms and promoting the use of sustainable, organic farming.

Real murder: what happens at a slaughterhouse

Following on from my blog post about the "murder" at the Nanakuli animal shelter, here is an account from Wikipedia of the mass murder process at a slaughterhouse (this is not for the faint of heart):

The slaughterhouse process differs by species and region and may be controlled by civil law as well as religious laws such as Kosher and Halal laws. A typical procedure follows:

Cattle (mostly steers and heifers, some cows, and even fewer bulls) are received by truck or rail from a ranch, farm, or feedlot.

Cattle are herded into holding pens.

Cattle are rendered unconscious by applying an electric shock of 300 volts and 2 amps to the back of the head, effectively stunning the animal,[8] or by use of a captive bolt pistol to the front of the cow's head (a pneumatic or cartridge-fired captive bolt). Swine can be rendered unconscious by CO2/inert gas stunning. (This step is prohibited under strict application of Halal and Kashrut codes.)
Animals are hung upside down by one of their hind legs on the processing line.

The carotid artery and jugular vein are severed with a knife, blood drains, causing death through exsanguination.

The head is removed, as well as front and rear feet. Prior to hide removal, care is taken to cut around the digestive tract to prevent fecal contamination later in the process.

The hide/skin is removed by down pullers, side pullers and fisting off the pelt (sheep and goats). Hides can also be removed by laying the carcass on a cradle and skinning with a knife.

The internal organs are removed and inspected for internal parasites and signs of disease. The viscera are separated for inspection from the heart and lungs, referred to as the "pluck." Livers are separated for inspection, tongues are dropped or removed from the head, and the head is sent down the line on the head hooks or head racks for inspection of the lymph nodes for signs of systemic disease.

The carcass is inspected by a government inspector for safety. (This inspection is performed by the Food Safety Inspection Service in the U.S., and CFIA in Canada.)

Carcasses are subjected to intervention to reduce levels of bacteria. Common interventions are steam, hot water, and organic acids.

Carcasses (typically cattle and sheep only) can be electrically stimulated to improve meat tenderness.

Carcasses are chilled to prevent the growth of microorganisms and to reduce meat deterioration while the meat awaits distribution.
The chilled carcass is broken down into primals and subprimals for boxed meat unless customer specifies for intact sides of meat. Beef and horse carcasses are always split in half and then quartered, pork is split into sides only and goat/veal/mutton and lamb is left whole

The remaining carcass may be further processed to extract any residual traces of meat, usually termed mechanically recovered meat, which may be used for human or animal consumption.

Waste materials such as bone, lard or tallow, are sent to a rendering plant. Also, lard and tallow can be used for the production of biodiesel or heating oil.

The waste water, consisting of blood and fecal matter, generated by the slaughtering process is sent to a waste water treatment plant.
The meat is transported to distribution centers that then distribute to retail markets.

Sneaking in Sustainability

Photo: Bok Choy

When you think of the word sustainability, do images of farms, recycling symbols, and windmills come to mind? Sustainability can be a huge concept to wrap your mind around. Working at Down to Earth, I’m usually surrounded by like-minded people who incorporate sustainable practices in their lives without a second thought. However when I run into the “real world”, it shocks me sometimes how little many care about sustainability. 

Recently, I was eating lunch with an old friend at Down to Earth. When we got our food from the deli and sat down, I noticed that she had 2 forks, a ton of napkins and 3 bottled waters. What could she possibly need all that for? Is someone coming to join us? Nope, she doesn’t like to use the same fork for her hot food and her salad. She claims she’s a messy eater so that’s why she needs all the napkins. And the 3 different water bottles? She doesn’t like to carry around anything that sticks out of her bag so she buys 3 small water bottles instead of 1 big one. What!? I started to friendly scold her that she was being wasteful and she just laughed it off. 

After lunch, (I took all the extra napkins she didn’t use and put them in my bag for my car – by the way, she’s not a messy eater at all, she barely used 2 napkins!) we walked around the store, specifically the Natural Living section. There we walked by the reusable containers and bottles and she was practically squealing about how cute the containers were. Did I mention that my friend is super fashionable and always looks like she walked out of a magazine ad? Seeing an opportunity, I casually suggested she could make up for her wasteful ways by using this kind of stuff more often. There was a fruit infusion bottle that she said her favorite YouTube fitness personality uses and from there it kind of spiraled into her grabbing a shopping basket and buying the infusion bottle, a Hydroflask, a reusable bag, and a few stainless steel reusable containers. I tried to talk to her more about why it’s important to use resuable containers and bags and her eyes glazed over. She told me it simply didn’t interest her the way it interested me but she can get behind having cool looking stuff. 

It’s often easy for me to forget that bringing your own water bottle, a personal pair of chopsticks, and  re-using old paper for a notebook are just not as common as I think they are. My friend perhaps didn’t see why the real spirit behind sustainability is important, but at least she took a small step in the right direction. This experience helped remind me that too often people who care about the environment are perceived as full blown activists, treehuggers, hippies, or other stereotypes. But I’ve noticed that when I dole out little tidbits of information in a certain way to friends and family members, it makes it easier for them to think more about their daily lives. Another success story is my cousin who started bringing her reusable containers when she went out to eat because her leftovers in Styrofoam containers would always spill in her bag or get soggy. Now, she packs it up and it’s ready for her to chow down on later. Another friend of mine is saving to go on a trip and wants to pinch pennies everywhere, so she recently started carrying around her own water bottle to refill and making her own coffee. After only 1 week of not buying any bottled water or coffee, she saved over $70. She couldn’t believe how much money she was wasting on things she perceived to be such small expenses and I gently told her she also didn’t waste any additional plastic… she agreed it was “impressive” but was more concerned about her bank account.

These are all small steps to living a more sustainable lifestyle and all for different reasons. But I say whatever helps! I’ll just be a little ninja pointing out tiny sustainable practices as stealthy as possible. What are your favorite little ways to be sustainable? Do you face resistance when trying to convince others to incorporate more sustainable practices? Let us know in the comments below!

Reduce your Forkprint!

Photo: Bamboo Utensil Set

Due to my busy schedule, I am always eating on the go. But I love to eat healthy foods, so I bring food with me everywhere. I drink smoothies in the car, bring homemade lunches to work, pack dinner picnics to the beach, bring snacks to events – you can always find some sort of goodie in my bag. I always try to have good, wholesome food (and chocolate) with me as much as possible so I don’t get tempted to get something unhealthy and regret it later. Eating this way makes me feel better, but it’s also good for my budget. I have always been “budget conscious” (I have been called a “Frugal Fanny”) and eating out all the time is incredibly expensive and wasteful. So along with packing my food, I always carry my super cute and durable bamboo cutlery set, so I’m never without utensils for my meals.  

The utensils are very sturdy, easy to clean, lightweight, and come in a small cute bag making it a breeze to bring them everywhere. I have a set that I always carry in my bag and one in the car for “eating emergencies.” I have also used this bamboo utensil set at restaurants when there are only plastic utensils available. This is just one small step that helps me cut down on waste. Bonus is that I never get splinters from cheap wooden chopsticks. What are other small ways to help reduce waste? Tell us in the comments. 

Getting Back to Our Roots

Photo: Volunteer Works at Hooulu Aina

Living in Honolulu, it’s so easy for me to forget that I live on land that is still very much alive. This past December, a group of thirteen Down to Earth team members (including myself) dedicated some time to volunteer at a special place tucked deep in Kalihi Valley. Ho’oulu ‘Aina is a beautiful nature preserve and organic community garden -- if you haven’t been there, it’s truly breathtaking! Every Thursday, Ho’oulu ‘Aina invites the public to their Growing Farmers community workday from 9:30am to 12:00pm. Check out their website for more info at The amazing work they do is a true testament to the power of community coming together to heal the land and its people.

We were all mesmerized by the lush green around us, and by the outgoing and passionate staff there. Our guide Jessica welcomed all of us with her warm heart and enthusiasm for healing the ‘aina. Jessica shared traditional organic farming techniques handed down from our ancestors and elders. Our team spent the day mulching and creating new garden beds.

There is something very special about the energy of Ho’oulu ‘Aina -- despite being tired and muddy, we all had huge smiles on our faces at the end of the day. Adding to the experience was the chance to harvest fresh kale, wing beans, chard, and turmeric for our lunch. Some of our team members joined with folks from Ho’oulu ‘Aina in preparing a beautiful lunch for everyone on the farm. Spending the time to malama the land, and cooking together as a community was a wonderful way, albeit a small one, to help make positive change in Hawai‘i.  You can too! 

Soil is More Precious than Gold

Photo: Hands Holding Seedling in Soil

As concern over diminishing soil quality grows in the Asia-Pacific region, natural farming methods may hold the cure.  The prime cause of soil erosion and nutrient depletion during the past thirty years is over-application of chemical fertilizer.  

This is the finding of a study by the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Science, which notes that farmers have become too dependent on artificial fertilizers.  They haven't been building up their soil with organic matter that nurtures the soil naturally and binds it together to help resist erosion due to wind and rain. 

The study found that in the Northeastern Chernozem Region, the most fertile region of China, topsoil decreased from three feet in the 1960s to nine inches now.  And The Epoch Times says "Organic matter in the soil dropped from 12 percent to 2 percent, and 85 percent of soil in the region now lacks nutrients, according to a Xinhua article cited by the Ministry of Land and Resources."

While it took only 30 years to deplete the soil, analysts predict that even if trends reversed today, it would still take over 100 years to return even a half-inch of topsoil.  Building healthy soil using sustainable natural methods is a smart investment.  It helps increase crop yields and helps ensure fertile cropland for generations to come.  That’s why soil is more precious than gold.  All the gold in the world won't matter if there's no soil to grow food.

Farmers can make a difference by reducing their dependence on chemical fertilizers.  And those of you who have gardens can help, too.  Instead of using chemicals to feed your plants, use organic fertilizers such as cow manure and compost that you make yourself. 

Some predict that if the trend of soil depletion continues, healthy soil could become one of our most rare and valuable resources.  Whether you are a farmer with vast acres to plant or simply have a small garden in your backyard, each of us can help make a difference.  The use of organic fertilizers, compost, mulches, and other organic matter not only preserves soil; it helps keep it healthy while eliminating health risks associated with toxic, chemical fertilizers that get absorbed by the food crops we eat.

Asian Plant-Based Diet Can Help Prevent Water Shortage

Photo: Mobile Irrigation System

Water resources are growing scarce in Asia and experts say the primary culprit is changing diet. Increasing adoption of a western meat-based diet requires more than four times the amount of water to produce than tofu and ten times more than rice.

Two additional trends competing for water are Asia's population growth and economic development, which are making it more difficult to meet the demands of an increasingly thirsty land. Surprisingly, the water required to meet these trends is a relatively small amount compared to the water used to raise animals for slaughter. For example, a bowl of rice, tofu and vegetables takes about 570 kilos of water to produce. That same meal with beef instead of tofu takes about 2180 kilos of water. So while population growth may be a problem, clearly the bigger problem is what people choose to eat. A plant-based diet, like the one common in Asia for centuries, is the only sustainable solution.

The authors of a study on the rising consumption of meat write, “Whether it is a good thing is not the issue; it is a phenomenon that will occur.” If the situation isn’t reversed, the Asian Development Bank has predicted that by the year 2030 Asia will lack 40% of the water it needs for food. Some scientists claim that nothing can be done. But governments and social organizations around the world agree they can't give up. Paul Reiter, executive director of the International Water Association, has compared the water crisis to a slow-moving train wreck. He hopes a gathering of 7000 policy makers in September in Busan, South Korea, will provide a platform to discuss water scarcity and solutions. Hopefully, conferees will consider the impact of diet on water supply.

The Asia Foundation says food production uses more water than any other activity. Only 6% of water in Asia is used for drinking, washing and cooking. Another 10% is used in development and industry. Meanwhile, fully 84% of all water withdrawn in Asia each year goes to agriculture. So focusing on food is actually the quickest path to solving the problem of future water supply.

According to the United Nations, it takes about 1500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat, but it takes 10 times more to produce 1kg of beef! Producing feed crops for livestock, slaughtering and the processing of meat, milk and other dairy products also require large quantities of water. On average, meat production requires 2,025 liters of water for every 150 grams, while soybeans take 412 liters and fruit takes only 69 liters of water for the same amount.

Some experts look at the changing habits of 4 billion people in Asia and conclude that the rise in meat consumption cannot be stopped. However, no one is forced to eat meat. What we choose to eat is a decision that each of us makes individually. Each of us has the power within ourselves to make a difference. The good news is that no one has to learn new skills or adopt new habits. All that’s required is sticking with the traditional plant-based Asian diet, where meat is treated as a condiment rather than the main course.

Water shortages are a serious problem around the world. In the U.S. alone, nearly half of all the water used is squandered on animal agriculture. This situation is causing serious water shortages that will need to be addressed before long. At least in Asia a key solution already exists in the form of the traditional Asian plant-based diet.

What we choose to eat is one of the most significant factors in the personal impact we have on the environment and the fastest path to change. The single most important thing that an individual can do for their health and the environment—as well as to ensure future water supply—is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

World Hunger Can Be Solved With Vegetarian Diet

Photo: Man in a Wheat Field

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that food production will need to increase globally by 70% to feed the world's surging population in 2050. The FAO says that efficiency gains in agriculture will be overwhelmed by the expected population growth.

As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products, and which are increasingly being adopted around the world, are unsustainable.

Simply put, the more people eat meat, the fewer people can be fed. For example, over 10 pounds of plant protein are used to produce one pound of beef protein. If these grains were fed to humans instead of animals, more food would be available for the 925 million people in chronic hunger worldwide. Research from Cornell University, of the United States, found that the grain used to feed livestock in the United States alone could feed 800 million people.

The issue with water is similar. It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef and about 660 gallons to make a pound of chicken. It only takes about 220 gallons to make a pound of tofu and 180 to make a pound of wheat flour. Compared with the meat industry, a vegetarian diet consumes far less water. There are plenty of other examples, but you get the idea.

Some may be concerned about whether a vegetarian diet is healthy. In fact, a well-balanced vegetarian diet is actually more healthful than a meat-oriented diet. The American Dietetic Association and the United States Department of Agriculture both agree that a vegetarian diet can provide complete nutrition for optimal human health including all 10 essential proteins (amino acids) necessary for good health. Vegetarians suffer less from heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of other diet-related diseases which now cost the United States alone over $1.2 trillion each year.

There is more than enough food in the world to feed the entire human population. So, why are more than one billion people still going hungry every day? The meat-based diet is largely to blame. We cycle huge amounts of grain, soybeans, and corn through animals killed for food rather than directly feed starving people. If we stopped intensively breeding farmed animals and grew crops to feed people instead, we could easily feed everyone on the planet with healthy and affordable vegetarian foods.

Your Health and the Environment

Photo: Cows Standing in a Pasture

What we eat can cause or worsen diet-related illnesses and thus has a significant impact on our quality of life.

Virtually all the major scientific and medical institutions in the world agree that the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, obesity, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cancer, and diabetes, among other diseases is linked to a meat-based diet consisting of highly processed foods laden with fats and artificial ingredients. These institutions further agree that the risk is greatly reduced by adopting a healthy low-fat, high-fiber diet.

So what is the prescription for a healthier body, both now and in the future? Simple. Eat less meat, or even better give it up completely, as meat has all too often been blamed for the above mentioned diet-related illnesses, and replace it with an all-vegetarian diet. This makes sense for a number of reasons.

At the most basic level, meat, fish, and eggs have high cholesterol. Their wide-scale consumption has contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of premature deaths from heart disease, strokes and cancer; and meat-based diets contribute to a host of other health-related problems.

In contrast, a plant-based diet is generally low in fat, including saturated fat, which can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease. Flesh foods, on the other hand, are high in saturated fat, which is the biggest contributor to blood clotting, which can result in heart disease and stroke.

And, plant-based proteins have zero cholesterol. High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease. Meat is high in LDL (bad cholesterol) and the more LDL you have in your bloodstream, the more likely plaque (atherosclerosis) will form in your arteries.

A meat-based diet is an extremely wasteful use of the earth's limited resources, as it requires many times more resources to create a pound of animal flesh than a pound of vegetarian foods. Whether it's unchecked air or water pollution, soil erosion, or the overuse of resources, raising animals for food is wreaking havoc on the Earth.

And finally, from an ethical point of view, eating animals causes extreme pain and suffering to billions of innocent creatures. Given the suffering these animals endure, and given that all our nutritional needs can easily be satisfied without eating these animals, vegetarianism is morally required. The fact is that eating animals is unnecessary because nature has provided ample vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and dairy products for human sustenance. Therefore, the slaughter of animals for food is a luxury rather than a necessity and is morally wrong

The single most important thing you can do for your health, the environment, and the innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

Chopping up birds

In the Island Life section of the Honolulu Advertiser today (Wednesday, April 14, 2010) the main story was entitled "Buying the whole bird", which was about how to "enjoy value, freshness, versatility by learning to cut apart a chicken."  It was accompanied by pictures with captions like, "1. start with a fresh whole chicken. 2. After folding the wing tips back, cut in to remove the leg, breast.  3. With the chicken upright, cut the "oyster" (1) from the chicken. 4. Pop off the hip joint on the chicken and cut off the leg piece.  5. Do the same on the other side.  6. Cut down the center, separating the breast meat, down the ribs.  Breasts may be boned out or left on the bone for the deeper flavor."  

And this is just the captions to the pictures, wait until you read the article where there are wonderful statements like, "Why bother with the whole when what you want is the parts?"  "Whole birds are versatile, they can be roasted in their entirety or cut to culinary whimsy."  "A single whole chicken yields two breast portions for pan roasting, dark meat for pot pies, bones and other trimmings for stock and fat, skimmed from the stock and used to make gravy for the pot pies.  Giblets (2) are frozen until enough have accumulated to make liver pate or other special dishes."  "We use every bit of the chicken."  

Ok, sheez, ewww, this is one of the most brutal, callous, and disgusting articles I have ever read.  What are we doing as a society that we don't think twice about chopping up a bird, a chicken, and eating it?  And not just its flesh, but its liver, its fat, its heart, its "oyster", and anything and everything else we can.  What is going on that people can become so hardened to the reality of what they are doing that they don't even think twice about the fact that they are chopping up a bird, chopping off its "breasts", and eating them?  We not only don't think twice about it, it is actually extolled and glorified as a great thing to do.  Talk about glorying in our shame.

Mark Fergusson

Chief Vegetarian Officer

  1. According to Wikipedia: Oysters are two small, round pieces of dark meat on the back of poultry near the thigh. Some regard the "oyster meat" to be the most flavorful and tender part of the bird, while others dislike the taste and texture.
  2. According to Wikipedia: Giblets are the edible offal of a fowl, typically including the heart, gizzard, liver, and other visceral organs: the term is culinary usage only.