Search Farmer Goes to Market

Search Site
Saturday March 24, 2018

Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver mistakes a common, safe food processing agent with household cleaner

File this one under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished department: When it first developed the process to treat ground beef with trace levels of ammonia hydroxide to help abate the seemingly intractable problem of E. coli contamination in that staple product, Beef Products Inc.’s process was considered groundbreaking. The South Dakota company has been credited in large part with helping reduce the incidence the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service found of E. coli positives in ground beef samples from 4.5 per thousand in 2009 to 0.8 per thousand in 2011.

Little wonder, then, that many in the ground beef business began a concerted push-back after McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell staged high-profile announcements in December announcing those chains would no longer purchase the company’s beef trimming products that one former FSIS employee hung with the catchy name “pink slime.”

If consumers really want to go green, they should welcome the use of today's animal technologies like antibiotic feed additives.

Critics of modern farming technology, such as the 2008 Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production, often condemn the use of antibiotic feed additives by livestock and poultry farmers. Feed additives are tiny amounts (typically the equivalent of about four single serving sweetener packets in 2,000 pounds of animal feed) of antibiotics, which improve the animal's health and in many cases make its digestion function better. Despite their use for nearly 60 years for this purpose, critics attack them as not environmentally sustainable. In fact, raising farm animals without antibiotics has now become a common food marketing ploy, often promoted as the green, economically sustainable choice.

But when held up to the light, those claims reveal their inherent logical flaw: As long as consumers insist on consuming meat, milk and eggs at anywhere near current levels, the only thing that removing antibiotic feed additives from the system accomplishes is to make the system less efficient. And when the system becomes less efficient, it becomes more wasteful of natural resources. Not only is that wasteful from an economic standpoint (arguing that reduced farm efficiency provides an economic boost because it employs more farmers is as illogical as arguing that a grocer’s shrinkage is a boon because it creates jobs for the garbage collector), but it's also environmentally wasteful. Australian veterinary consultant Stephen Page, from University of Sydney’s Veterinary School, reviewed over 2,000 global scientific studies, concluding that the use of low levels of common antibiotic additives in livestock and poultry feed ultimately helps improve the environment via numerous avenues. (Click the image for a full size version in Adobe Acrobat format)

Details on why feed additives help the environment 

The future of food and sustainability is high technology

Feeding the growing food demands of an increasing world population will require even better science and technology, one of the "giants of sustainable agriculture" told a crowd of 400 students and others at the first University of Nebraska Heuermann Lecture in Lincoln in early October. "It will take political will and farming skill for the world to solve its coming problems with food security and climate change," according to M.S. Swaminathan.

Swaminathan has been called the father of India's Green Revolution, which took his native country from the world's largest food deficit to self-sufficiency in grain in just over 20 years. He said the Green Revolution which so succeeded yesterday must evolve into an "EverGreen Revolution" tomorrow, emphasizing not just periodic improvement, but perpetual improvement.

Key to that sustainable growth without environmental depletion, said the world reknowned plant geneticist who was given the university's Willa Cather Medal in recognition of service to humanity at the lecture, is publicly supported technological research and innovation.

“Predictions are that in the next 40 years, the world's population will require a doubling of food production globally,” said Nebraska vice president of agriculture and natural resources Ronnie Green. “How we'll produce that increased food supply affects everyone. People need sound information to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions on what they'll support and why."

What kind of concurrent improvement can be made in food production and environmental protection by such technology? Here are a few current examples:

  • Predicted growth in both population and average income around the world will require us to grow twice the amount of food we do today by the middle of the century. The last time the world roughly doubled its food staple production was during the Green Revolution starting in the 1960s. Despite criticism, the Green Revolution’s high-technology farming actually saved vast areas of natural resources. Had no new technology been introduced after 1961, one estimate says, feeding the world would have required putting an additional 8.6 billion acres into food production—almost 1.5 times all of North America. Instead, total agricultural use increased just 8 percent. We face no less a challenge in the future, says Iowa State University farm policy authority Robert L. Thompson. “If we double food production by doubling the number of hectares [we farm]," Dr. Thompson warns, "it would create massive environmental damage...with large-scale destruction of forests, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.”
  • A 2003 Cornell study calculated that if the United States banned beef feedlots from using one particular class of antibiotics known as ionophores, as Europe did, the estimated amount of waste nitrogen going into the environment would increase by almost 11,000 tons annually. Feeding those antibiotics to all lactating U.S. dairy cows would cut another estimated 74,000 tons of nitrogen wasted per year. They also decrease production of the greenhouse gas methane by an estimated 25 percent.


  • Using an economic model from Iowa State, a 2008 study calculated the land needed to finish a pound of beef on grain using growth promotants, compared to using only grain or using only grass with no growth promotants. The results show growth promotants decrease land demands by two thirds. In addition, the same study showed, grain feeding combined with growth promotants also reduces greenhouse gases (excluding nitrous oxides) per pound of beef by 40 percent compared to organic grass feeding.

The fact is proven that using farm technology helps sustain the environment by requiring less land be planted to crops to feed people and livestock. Selling food as safer or greener because it’s raised without such technology risks being seen not as supporting true sustainability, but as mere “greenwashing.”

Here's why organic and natural health claims could put you in a credibility squeeze

"Are organic foods better than conventional foods and worth the extra money?" a reader asked the Lincoln JournalStar's "Food Doc," Bob Hutkins. As you might expect, considering his position as a food-science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Food Doc was very measured in his answer, attempting to balance both sides of the sometimes contentious debate about organics.

We'd like to take this opportunity to be a bit more blunt. 

Grocers seeking to make their stores the new center for wellness must do everything to guard their health-information credibility. Controlled studies are casting doubt on the ability to support claims that organic foods are healthier and more nutritious. Research continues to demonstrate what farmers intuitively understand: Over-selling the health benefits of organics may be setting us all up to disappoint educated customers.

Consumer studies have shown again and again that shoppers buy organic products first and foremost because they believe they’re getting safer, more nutritious food in exchange for the premium price. And many retailers, looking for that sales advantage, have done nothing to dissuade them of that notion—some have even openly advocated the message.

The problem is no science supports that claim, a fact of life USDA recognizes when it cautions that organic is merely a name for a process of growing plants and animals—it says nothing about the quality or safety of the food. Here’s what a sampling of the research says:

  • An International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition study found that despite costing twice as much, organic chicken was found to be less nutritious, fatter and worse tasting than conventional chicken.
  • A late 2006 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed no statistical differences in the nutritional quality—whether for humans or animals—of organic over conventionally grown wheat.
  • A December 2006 Chicago Tribune article examined the value behind organics’ premium price, concluding Americans face a risk of poor health by not eating enough fruits and vegetables of any kind that far outweighs the relatively minute risk of pesticide exposure organics may prevent. To the extent high organic prices further drive consumers away from produce, they stand to hurt health more than benefit it.
  • A 2008 review of the research by New York’s American Council on Science and Health directly challenged a widely reported pro-organic report by Charles Benbrook and colleagues at the Organic Trade Association's Organic Center. The Benbrook study’s conclusion that organic produce is 25 percent "more nutritious" than that produced by conventional agricultural practices was flawed, ACSH scientific advisor and emeritus professor of Food Toxicology at Rutgers University Joseph D. Rosen argued. The organic study cited results that were not statistically significant throughout, used unreliable non-peer reviewed papers and much irrelevant data, and openly ignored studies in which the results were favorable to conventional food.

“….a consumer who buys organic food thinking that it is more nutritious is wasting a considerable amount of money,” Rosen observed. “Even if organic advocates turn out to be correct in their assertions that organic food has more nutrient content than conventional food when tested against each other in valid matched pairs, how is the consumer going to use this information to make the right choice? Except for just a few fruits and vegetables, the consumer can not tell what variety of a crop is being offered for sale, thus making the selection of organic or conventional a crap shoot.”

Other research concludes organic production can actually increase Salmonella contamination in eggs, poultry and pork. Other studies have shown free-range poultry have a higher risk of being infected with Campylobacter. Pastured animals and birds also have higher rates of parasitic worm infections than their confined counterparts, studies prove.

No wonder, then, that a comprehensive review of British conventional vs. organic agriculture--although written to argue in favor of widespread adoption of organic production--nevertheless succinctly concludes: “Based on our current limited scientific knowledge, it appears that the widely held view of the public that organic foods are safer and healthier than conventional foods is incorrect for the great majority of consumers.”


Where does that leave the grocer?

Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. Therein lies the real power of organic. Rather than using organic standards to lecture consumers to “take their medicine” through their food, the smart retailer instead uses organic, and local, and natural and farm-fresh and the other indicators of an aura of authenticity to center themselves within both the community and the health scene. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness effects of organic.



The tragic death of two farm hands in early September that resulted when the winds shifted while they were burning pasture, trapping them by their own fire, raised a perrenial question in the state: Why do farmers purposely set fire to huge swaths of native rangeland every fall and spring?

Fire is a natural tool that's as old as the praries. Here are some of the benefits we find when ranchers use controlled, planned burning:

It improves the grass. When we burn off pastures at the right time using "prescribed burns," it improves what may appear to be perfectly good grassland by removing the invasive species of brush that are actually unnatural invaders and lead to less vigorous stands. The rich mulch that annual prairie grasses naturally produce create a natural growth medium that makes conditions right for woody species of non-prairie shrubs, brushes and trees to germinate. Over time, without fires that naturally occurred over history due to lightening strikes, those woody plants would progressively invade and eventually dominate tallgrass prairie. A single, planned burn at just the right time kills those invasive species without harming the grass.

It reduces, even eliminates, our need to use less natural controls. Without use of fire, ranchers have to resort to other tools like herbicides and mechanical brush removal, both of which carry the potential to pollute the environment and increase the carbon footprint of grass management.

It makes cattle more productive. Removing the competing woody plants and improving the grass improves the cattle grazing on it in three ways. First, removing the competition for sunlight, water and soil nutrients makes the grass stronger, healthier and more nutritious. So cattle get better nutrition bite for bite. Second, it reduces the brush back to its nutrients, freeing them up for use by the grass. And third, in addition to those improvements in individual plants, removing the brush also helps us use management tools that make the cattle herd graze the whole pasture more uniformly. That improved grazing distribution makes the entire pasture more productive.

It improves wildlife habitat. We know that in addition to lightning strikes, prairie fires were also started intentionally by the early plains indians. That effort to attract game into their hunting areas showed they understood what we have likewise learned, that controlled fire is actually good for wildlife. By maintaining the prairies in a state as close to the natural ecosystem that evolved, we help provide the most suitable home possible for game and non-game species of wildlife and birds.

It improves safety. The tragic loss of the farmers notwithstanding, regular controlled rangeland burns actually improve overall public safety, by reducing the amount of tinder allowed to build up and pose a fire hazard during dry summers.

Have questions about why farmers and ranchers use any other practice, like prescribed burning? Use the form below to ask and we'll get an answer from a real Nebraska farmer. 

S5 Box