Saturday, June 30, 2012

Experts won't eat nonorganic potatoes

Photo: Sally Kneidel
On my weekly shopping jaunt yesterday, I was irked to find the grocery store was out of organic baking potatoes. Frustrating. I was planning to have them for supper last night, and I already had the vegan chili beans for a topping.

I thought about it for a minute – how could a vegetable that’s underground be sprayed directly with pesticides? The nonorganic potatoes must not be that bad, I thought. So I bought them instead.
After I got home, I remembered an article my daughter had e-mailed me entitled, “The 7 foods experts won’t eat.” I pulled the article out of my file and….dang, sure enough, #4 was “Nonorganic potatoes.”

I was dead wrong

I was definitely mistaken about underground veggies being relatively safe from pesticides. As it turns out, root vegetables absorb herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides that have washed into the soil. So these chemicals are not just on the vegetable’s surface, they’re absorbed into its flesh. Washing and peeling can’t get rid of them.

Because potatoes are the nation’s most popular vegetable and demand is so high, potato plants are sprayed at every opportunity to keep the spuds blemish-free. During the growing season, the potato plants are sprayed with fungicides… which wash and seep into the soil. At harvesting time, the vines are obliterated with herbicides to get them out of the way. More seepage down to the taters. After the potatoes are harvested, they’re sprayed directly with a chemical to keep them from sprouting. And they usually won’t sprout, even if you try to get them to. (Although I have sprouted a few conventional potatoes.)

Potato farmers won’t eat them!

Said Jeffrey Moyer as chair of the National Organic Standards Board, “I’ve talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals.”
The only solution is buying organic potatoes, or growing your own. If you’re desperate, peeling may help somewhat….at least with the sprout-inhibiting chemical.

Buying organic protects wildlife too

Remember – when you buy organic, you’re protecting not only your own health, but the health of the wildlife and ecosystems next to and downhill from those farm fields. When crops are sprayed, so are the soil insects and worms, which are eaten by frogs and birds and lizards….the toxic sprays move right along the food chain, poisoning the whole system. And that includes the streams and lakes and rivers downhill from the cropfields…as well as ground water and well water.

So looks like I’ll be taking those icky taters back to the store. Now, we did have some organic sweet potatoes on hand last night. I wondered briefly how those would taste with chili beans. Quickly abandoned that idea.

Instead we decided to saute some portabellos in a little olive oil with some fresh rosemary, a sprinkle of toasted sesame oil, and a splash of tamari. We put each portabello on a big slice of rosemary-olive oil bread with melted soy mozzarella on top. Had a salad on the side. Now that was tasty.

Keywords: organic potatoes nonorganic potatoes

Controversy over foie gras: California bans the stuff

An uncut foie gras liver. Photo: David Monniaux.
Used under Creative Commons Atrribution-ShareAlike license.

Foie gras will be illegal in the state of California as of July 1, 2012. The ban is a major milestone for animal-rights activists, and for anyone who cares about animal suffering. Foie gras is the fatty and grossly-enlarged liver of geese or ducks, an expensive “gourmet” meat created by force-feeding the birds.

It’s my understanding that California will be the first U.S. state to outlaw the sale and the production of foie gras. A number of European countries, as well as Israel and Argentina, have already banned it. The city of Chicago did so in August of 2006, but the ban only lasted two years before the city council overturned it, under pressure from restaurant owners and then-Mayor Daley.

In banning this meat considered a delicacy, the California state legislature apparently acted out of concern for animal cruelty. The ban was requested by a coalition of animal-protection organizations including the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Farm Sanctuary, Los Angeles Lawyers for Animals, and Viva!USA. Sales of foie gras are way up in California at present, as diners fond of fatty livers make merry while they can.

Kate Winslet exposes foie gras farms on this video

No one disputes that force-feeding geese and ducks up to 4 lbs of grain and fat per day through a tube pushed down their throats is unpleasant and dangerous for the birds. Perhaps “cruel” would be a better word. Yet, feeding is just one piece of the picture. Between feedings, the birds are not swimming around a pond or frolicking through the grass to shake off the bad experience. On large-scale foie gras farms, each duck is confined permanently to a cage that hugs its body, unable to groom itself or even turn around. Only their heads and necks protrude from the long rows of battery cages, so that staff inserting the feeding tubes 3 times a day can move along the rows quickly. Check out this video of Kate Winslet narrating undercover footage of the feeding and housing of foie gras birds.

Under this regimen, the birds’ fat-laced livers grow so large that the animals are eventually unable to move or to breathe normally. The livers are prized as a delicacy because of their fatty, “buttery” taste.

Workers, consumers victimized too

I have not visited a foie gras farm. I have however inspected a Food Lion egg factory (over a million caged hens in one facility), a massive Tyson broiler farm (chickens), a Tyson breeder farm, and a factory hog farm – all of which are described in detail in our book Veggie Revolution.
Animals are not the only victims in these dismal places. We also interviewed farm-owners and workers – none of them were happy working under contract to meatpacking companies whose guiding ethic is shaving pennies from production costs. Worker safety, consumer safety, animal welfare, and environmental safeguards all take a back seat to shareholder profits for the meatpacking corporations that are calling the shots.

Laborers on factory farms and in meatpacking plants, including foie-gras farms, are paid minimal wages and are often illegal immigrants too vulnerable to object to exploitive and dangerous working conditions. Usually working under a quota of animals or carcasses processed per minute, they are forced to rush through procedures such as force-feeding of geese or ducks for foie gras. Consequently, workers often injure themselves as well as animals. The throats of the geese and ducks are often perforated and scraped as the tube is pushed into place for each feeding.

Fois gras a small market, can lead to bigger victories later

In reality, the plight of foie gras birds is not particularly worse than that of most factory-farmed animals. Foie gras has been targeted by animal-rights activists because it’s a relatively small market that is more vulnerable to change than more broadly entrenched practices. Banning foie gras is a far more achievable goal than, say, demanding that beef cattle no longer be fed the corn that marbles their meat and speeds their growth, maximizing profits for ranchers and meatpackers. (Corn makes cattle very sick.)

Supermarkets are customer-driven – your objection counts

What can you do? If you see foie gras for sale, tell the proprietor of the shop or restaurant that you find the sale distressing, and tell them why. They may not know much about how the liver is produced. Tell them that you won’t shop or dine there as long as they carry the product. We interviewed the manager of a large supermarket chain store about the veal they sell, for our book Veggie Revolution. He said supermarkets are purely customer-driven. They carry what customers buy, period. Sales of veal (another smallish market) have dropped dramatically in recent years due to publicity from animal rights groups, who have educated the public about what veal is exactly – it’s beef from anemic calves that are kept isolated in narrow stalls from the age of 1 day to slaughter at 4 months, often chained at the neck to keep their muscles weak and tender. Although Americans are still eating veal, demand in the U.S. dropped 62% between 1987 and 2006. As consumers learn more about foie gras, I believe its sales will drop as well. Hopefully more states will follow California’s inspiring example.

Keywords: foie gras ban animal cruelty factory farming animal products animal welfare California ban forced feeding gavage duck livers goose livers

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top 5 myths about vegan and vegetarian diets

As a science writer and educator, I continuously hear misconceptions and fears about plant-based diets. Some of these fears are so prevalent that they qualify as "common knowledge" - except that they're all false! The five most common fears or myths I hear all stem from misleading advertising, or just from a lack of information. So here's the real scoop on those pervasive myths:

Myth #1: Cows' milk is the best source of calcium.
It's true that cows' milk is rich in calcium. But animal protein tends to leach calcium from bones - and cows' milk is high in protein. Calcium is more readily absorbed from plant sources, such as soy milk, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach and other leafy greens, navy beans, calcium-fortified orange juice. These sources not only provide more accessible calcium, they have no saturated fat or cholesterol. Usual cheeses made of cows' milk are 70% fat! And most of that fat is saturated. To see your daily calcium requirement based on your age, and a longer list of vegetable sources rich in calcium, look here.

In addition to being more healthful, plant sources of calcium are also more earth-friendly - just one dairy cow expels 120 pounds of waste every single day. The waste winds up in waste "lagoons" that leak and spill into our surface waters and ground water.

Myth #2: Animal products are essential for protein
This is probably the biggest myth we hear when doing presentations about our books Veggie Revolution and Going Green. Most Americans get more protein than they need, and a vegan diet can easily provide plenty of protein. For breakfast, a cup of cooked oatmeal alone provides 5 grams of protein. Add walnuts, ground flax and fruit for more protein and lots of fiber. One cup of soy milk provides 7-10 grams, depending on the brand. For lunch and dinner: one veggie burger is 10-12 grams, 2 tbsps peanut butter has 8 grams, 2 ounces dry whole wheat pasta are 9 grams. One cup of cooked lentils, beans, or peas has 15 to 17 grams of protein. Just one slice of whole wheat or multigrain bread has about 3 grams. Check out more tips on plant-based protein from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

In terms of earth-care, one of the most powerful choices we can make to preserve our planet for future generations is to give up our reliance on animal products. Factory farming is trashing our water, converting wild lands to livestock support areas, and greatly adding to our use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used to grow livestock feedcrops, to harvest and transport livestock feedcrops, to transport refrigerated animal products to markets, etc.

Myth #3: Fish is a healthy, earth-friendly alternative to meat
I often see other writers promote fish as a healthy option; sometimes they cite studies that extol the health advantages of seafood. Sure, fish has some advantages - when compared to red meat. Meat, especially red meat, is loaded with saturated fat that contributes to heart disease, obesity, and some cancers. And the average American eats a whopping 185 lbs of meat per year. But consuming fish is not a healthier choice than a vegan diet. Virtually all fish are contaminated with pollutants now, at least to some degree - whether from runoff, discharges, spills, or from airborne pollutants such as mercury, which settle into our surface waters. When you choose a fish-free diet, you not only reduce your exposure to mercury and other dangerous contaminants, you also take a step to protect our oceans and marine wildife. Most commercial oceanic fisheries now use indiscriminate large-scale fishing methods that catch and kill untargeted species ("bycatch") and ravage marine habitat. That bycatch includes oceanic birds and marine mammals.  For more about bycatch, see this previous post and the links at the end of it.

Myth #4: Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s may be good for your heart; some studies suggest they are. But fish is not the only source or the best source. Flax seeds and walnuts are two plant sources that are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and are mercury-free. Two tablespoons of ground flax seeds per day are a good source of omega-3s; ground flax seeds are also an excellent source of fiber and support digestive health. The ground flax seeds can be stirred into a bowl of soup, mixed with cold cereal or hot cereal, sprinkled over salads and vegetables. I grind 2 tbsp of flax seeds in a coffee grinder every morning, and dump them into my bowl of bran flakes and cold soy milk. They actually improve the taste and texture of cold cereal, for me.

Myth #5: Since eggs and milk don't require the death of an animal, these animal products are relatively "humane." I can eat them "guilt-free."
I used to believe this. Not so long ago, I believed it. Then I visited a Food Lion egg factory. The hens there are indeed slaughtered, as soon as their egg production begins to wane. That's usually at about 2 years of age. They are so bedraggled and wasted after 2 years, the manager himself told me "Their bodies are so spent, we can't give them away." For more about the life of a typical laying hen, check out this earlier post. Cows in most dairies these days are slaughtered after 3 years of injections and living on concrete, when their milk production takes a dip and they're replaced. Their slaughtered then, and their flesh then goes to hot dogs or canned meat - not good enough for fresh beef. In my experience, the only hens and milk cows that may have lives worth living are those on small farms that are open to your inspection.

Truth: Resources for plant-based dining are abundant these days, in books and online. This website is a good start. It's easy to choose guilt-free and healthy foods, and protect our precious Earth at the same time. Every plant-based meal helps.

Keywords: Top 5 myths about vegan diet animal welfare calcium soy mercury omega-3 fatty acids protein vegan health