Translating Food Technology

Search Farmer Goes to Market

Search Site

Why do farmers use anhydrous ammonia?

If it's spring, it must be meth season.

Recent news reports about illegal labs manufacturing the drug methamphetamine from Fairbury, Waverly and others have raised the perrennial question: If illegal methamphetamine labs make such ready use of the common crop fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, why do farmers continue to make it their most popular source of crop nutrients?

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.”

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.

 

 

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.

green1

  • 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.”

Partners

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.


S5 Box