Friday, April 15, 2011

Ignorance and Addiction

I’ve written before about how the “low fat diet is the healthy diet” message has infected so many other disciplines. Those concerned with environmental issues and agricultural policy are not immune to this contagion. Here are two examples.

Mid-April grazing in the Willamette Valley

Environmental Issues

One piece of conventional “wisdom” is that animal agriculture is responsible, in part, for anthropogenic global climate change (formerly known as “global warming”). If that were true, then advocating a diet based upon animal products would harm the environment, while plant-based diets would save it. Hence “Meatless Mondays” and “Meat=Heat” campaigns. Some recent web-surfing took me to the Meat and Livestock Australia web site. Lots of interesting information, including their Red Meat Green Facts and Myth Busting pages. Two of the busted myths are worth mentioning:

Myth: It takes 13,209 gallons (50,000 liters) of water to produce 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beef

Have you ever heard of “virtual water figures”? I hadn’t. Apparently virtual water figures attribute every drop of rain that falls on a farm to the production of red meat, ignoring that most of the water ends up in waterways, as ground water, or is used by trees and other plants not grazed by cattle. It is obviously inappropriate to use virtual water figures for environmental measurements. A more appropriate figure is from a life cycle assessment that calculates the amount of water used to produce a pound of beef from grazing on farm to exiting the processing facility. A 2009 life cycle assessment carried out by The University of New South Wales for three beef production systems in southern Australia found that it takes 7 to 143 gallons (27 to 540 liters) of water to produce 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beef (See this link for more information.). That’s a figure almost 100 times less that the myth, at least!

Myth: Livestock produce more emissions than the various forms of transportation, combined.

This frequently quoted figure comes from Livestock's Long Shadow, a report published in 2006 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). A 2010 review of this report by scientists from the University of California Davis found that the FAO authors calculated greenhouse gas emissions in two different ways, resulting in an unfair comparison (link to abstract). One of the authors of the FAO report, Livestock Policy Officer Pierre Gerber, told BBC News he accepted the criticism. "I must say honestly that he [Professor Mitloehner] has a point; we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn't do the same thing with transport". The estimate of anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted from the world's livestock stated in Livestock’s Long Shadow is 6 times greater than that from the Environmental Protection Agency (18% vs. less than 3%).

I think the evidence shows that animal agriculture is the only truly sustainable form of agriculture we’ll ever hope to have, and that anything else will be a compromise. I was pleased, therefore to find the Meat and Livestock Australia site (thanks to Neil Lane). But as I read down through the list of myths, it happened again!

In response to the myth that “Replacing red meat would be beneficial for people's health” they state that “Red meat delivers nutrients essential for health and wellbeing including: protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and long chain omega-3s.” Good points, I agree. They then provide a link to “Find out more about red meat and nutrition.” On that page we find the statement “With less than 4% saturated fat, trimmed red meat has the Heart Foundation’s Tick of Approval.”

Sigh …

Agricultural Policy

A colleague from the Healthy Nation Coalition recently asked me about George Pyle’s book Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food. I am sympathetic to the case that Pyle is trying to make. Our agricultural system is broken, too. I believe that our policy incorrectly favors the largest producers, and subsidizes the production of commodities that are NOT required for human health. But mid-way through his book, Pyle goes wrong. The fact that he was so close to the truth when he did so made it all the more disconcerting.

On page 88 Pyle offers an explanation for why “Poor women of all races and ethnic groups are 50 percent more likely to be obese than are their richer sisters.” He suggests it’s due to the fact that “poor people have diets heavy in starches and sugars, processed foods that are thought to be cheaper and more filling.” I have no problem agreeing with that. Later, on page 89, Pyle writes “the London-based International Obesity Task Force estimates that some parts of Africa have more overnourished children than undernourished ones. (Over-nourished, that is, in the sense of too many sugars and starches.)” And then, on page 90, Pyle writes “By 2004 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found another link between hunger and obesity in developing countries, a link also caused by the increasing availability of American-style cheap, fatty foods.“

Wait a minute! Where did the “fatty” come from? He hadn’t made that point in his preceding discussion! He was so close to making a significant breakthrough. But having gone off the rails, he proceeds to destroy the right-of-way. “The hungry people of rural Africa, Asia, and, most maddeningly, of the rural communities that consistently top the list of America’s poorest counties are like the amputated toes of the diabetic or the diseased heart of the cholesterol-loaded person. They are unseen parts damaged by the unthinking efforts of the rest of the body to ensure it is always full.” On page 92, he states “Cheap corn not only translates to cheap beef, which means we eat more of it and get fat” and that beef will “shorten their lives by an indefinite number of years.”

I’ve found it hard to continue reading this book. If he’s this far off on this, how many other factual errors did he make throughout the rest of the book? Until we’ve completely uproot the faulty reasoning that got us into the chronic disease epidemic we now face, we will have difficulty fixing what’s so broken.


And we must remember that we’re not just striving to correct factual error. We’re facing a population that is addicted to carbohydrates. Paul John Scott’s recent article, Are Carbs More Addictive Than Cocaine? might seem like hyperbole, but I don’t think so.

In “Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution” I read the story of a diabetic woman who, by following Dr. Bernstein’s program, had significantly lowered her blood sugars, dramatically improved total cholesterol/HDL ratio (meaning she’d lowered her cardiac risk), reversed the vision loss she had been experiencing, almost completely restored the feeling in her feet, along with some weight loss as a fringe benefit. A critical part of Dr. Bernstein’s program to achieve normal blood sugars is, of course, a restricted carbohydrate diet. After describing all of these improvements in her health, this patient says: “I miss the goodies I give my grandkids, all the cookies, candy bars, ice cream. And the holidays. Everything’s kind of restricted.” If that doesn’t sound like addiction to you, it sure does to me! I understand cravings and missing things I used to eat, believe me! But to have experienced such an improvement in your health, to have been taught so much by the extraordinarily intensive counseling and coaching approach that Dr. Bernstein employs, and to still think that these “food” items are fit food for human beings – let alone your diabetes-prone grandchildren – is frankly breathtaking. Imagine a clean and sober woman saying: “I sure miss the methamphetamine, especially when I give it to my grandkids.”


Bernstein, R. K. 2007. “Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.

Pyle, G. 2005. “Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food.” Public Affairs, New York, NY.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Some Mammals Require Dietary Carbohydrate

But they’re ruminants, and we aren’t

I’ve been busy since the last post. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, but it is a challenge! I made a commitment (dare I say a “resolution”?) to post items to this blog on the 1st and 15th of each month. Looks like I’ll miss this one by just a bit. I’ll try to get back on track for the next post, although the next few weeks will include presentations at the Douglas County Livestock Association’s Spring Livestock Conference on April 9th in Roseburg, Oregon and at the Small Farm Trade Fair in Madras, Oregon on April 16th.

Since my last post I’ve given a presentation, attended a conference, and tried to work my way through a couple of books. And I’m constantly being reminded of just how much we have to do to before “the system” is fixed.

I spoke to the Crook County Stock Growers Association’s Annual Banquet on March 19th. The event was held at the at the Crook County Fairgrounds in Prineville, Oregon. The well attended event was, in part, a fund-raiser for their Beef For Kids initiative. They are striving to get good-quality, locally-grown beef back on the menus of Crook County public schools. A truly worthy goal. I know that the cattlemen in Malheur County are already engaged in a similar initiative, and I hope we’ll see this effort spread throughout the nation. The “food” we provide to our school children via our school meal programs is truly abysmal. And the chance to repeat the message, in various ways, that animal products are fundamental to human health should never be missed. My presentation, “Food For Thought,” was well received. Several folks kindly shared their personal experiences with me. I was grateful that I could again direct people to the sources of information that have so profoundly changed my own life. Eventually I found myself standing in the dinner line next to a long-time friend. Suddenly I became aware of one of the paintings that were hung on the wall over the pass-through from the kitchen. Oh, the irony!
Figure 1:How to fatten a hog, and a human!
I also attended the Oregon Forage and Grassland Council’s 2011 Annual Meeting in Albany on March 24th. This year’s keynote speaker was Neil Lane, an Australian dairy farm management consultant from Intelact. He shared a wealth of information about pasture-based dairy management in Australia and New Zealand. What he tried to impart to us can have an immense impact on the Pacific Northwest. Our environment is unique to North American. The potential for grass-based animal agriculture in our region is huge. We have progressive grass farmers here, but there’s room for many more!

“We don’t manage paddocks – we manage tillers!”
                                                                                  - Neil Lane

Now a clump of perennial ryegrass might look like a single plant, but it’s actually a collection of tillers. While each tiller has its own leaves and roots, it is connected to neighboring tillers at its base. These tillers share water, nutrients and carbohydrates via this connection. A newly-established ryegrass plant consists of one tiller until it reaches the 3 leaf stage. If there is a low tiller density, sunlight will penetrate to the base of the sward. This stimulates the production of daughter tillers. These daughter tillers grow from buds in the leaf axil, appearing first as small one leaf tillers growing inside an older leaf at the base of the plant. This older leaf soon dies and disappears. The new tiller continues to put out leaves and soon becomes a separate tiller with its own root system. Each new leaf emerges on the opposite side of the tiller to the previous leaf.
Figure 2. A ryegrass tiller with 3 1/2 leaves (from Guest, 2008)
A perennial ryegrass tiller maintains a maximum of 3 live leaves. As each new leaf emerges after this 3 leaf stage, the oldest leaf dies. Maximum perennial ryegrass yield is achieved by allowing the tillers to grow to 3 leaves as each subsequent leaf is bigger than the previous leaf. The 1st leaf contributes 15–20% of total pasture biomass, the 2nd leaf 30–35% and the 3rd leaf 45–50% with little difference in metabolizable energy content between the 1st and 3rd leaf (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Leaf stage vs. yield (from Guest, 2008)
Provided water is not limiting, leaf growth rate is controlled mainly by temperature. Perennial ryegrass will usually grow a new leaf every 6–7 days in the warm, sunny days of early fall, but could take 10–13 days or more in the colder, shorter days of mid to late fall.

Tillers form glucose and then other water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) in the leaves via photosynthesis. These WSC (also known as Non-Fiber Carbohydrates, or NFC) are used to provide energy for ongoing growth and respiration. The availability of WSC in ryegrass tillers has a marked effect on the plant’s re-growth potential and ability to persist after grazing. When the fourth leaf emerges and the oldest leaf dies, there is no further build up of plant WSC levels (Figure 4). Proper grazing management must take into consideration this relationship to promote improved utilization and production. Improved pasture utilization and production will lead to optimal profit.

Figure 4. Leaf stage and water soluble carbohydrate levels (from Guest, 2008)

Studies have shown that it is best to use leaf appearance intervals
to decide when to graze, not pasture height.
- Kelly Guest, 2008

Grazing at the 3rd leaf stage doesn’t just improve pasture production and utilization. It also improves animal performance. Proper rumen function requires at least as much NFC as Ruminally Degradable Protein (RDP) in the herbage eaten. If there is too much RDP, it is converted to ammonia in the rumen. This excess ammonia needs to be detoxified to urea and excreted in urine. This process requires energy, and can have a negative effect on both production and reproduction in the grazing animal. Green growing pasture contains more than enough RDP for any ruminant’s requirements, but the NFC are frequently limiting. Recent research has shown that the ratio of RDP to NFC becomes more balanced after the 2-leaf stage, as NFC levels increase with re-growth, while RDP levels decline due to leaf maturity. The ratio of RDP to NFC can be as high as 5:1 at the 1st leaf stage, declining to 1:2 at the 3rd leaf stage. The levels of minerals in perennial ryegrass change markedly with re-growth, too. Potassium, which is usually at levels far in excess of the animal’s requirements, declines, while calcium and magnesium, important for milk production, increase with re-growth to the 4-leaf stage. One indicator of appropriate mineral status for performance of dairy cows is the ratio of potassium over calcium and magnesium. This ratio should be below about 2.2 to reduce the incidence of grass tetany and other metabolic problems. The ratio falls from about 6 at the 1st leaf stage, to below 2.2 at the 3rd leaf stage. Another indicator of appropriate mineral status is the ratio of calcium to phosphorus. The recommended ratio for milking cows is above about 1.6:1. In perennial ryegrass this ratio changes from about 1:1 at the 1st leaf stage, to over 2:1 at the 3rd leaf stage.

Table 1. Nutrient values of perennial ryegrass herbage at different leaf stages. (Donaghy, 2005)

There is abundant evidence of farmers increasing their profitability by using leaf stage for grazing management. But new ideas aren’t always embraced by the farming community. If the New Zealanders are lagging in their adoption of this philosophy, as Neil told us, then how long will it be before it’s adopted in the US? Seven-plus dollar a bushel corn may help the adoption rate!

Figure 5: Spring in Western Oregon

Donaghy, D. and B. Fulkerson. 2005. ‘Principles for developing an effective grazing management system for ryegrass-based pastures’. Press release Dairy Research and Development Corporation, Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research.

Guest, K., 2008. “Pasture Phase Farming – More Than a Passing Phase: A Handbook to Ryegrass Management on the Esperance Sandplain.” Lemon, J., J. Ryan, M. Ryan, N. Witham, and J. Lucey, Eds. South East Premium Wheat Growers Association.