The following pieces were written by Northern Vegans founding member, Ken Damro, who holds a degree in Vegan Nutrition Consulting:
Eyewitness To Deception: The Free Range/Organic Controversy
So much of our lives – what we do, who we perceive ourselves to be, what we purchase, where we go, and when we go, is strongly influenced by words. Words have the ability to make us feel powerful or tear us down; give us permission, or make us feel guilty; skirt the truth, or revile information.
The late George Carlin was a master of words. He showed us that the word “wetland” paints a much more lovable or acceptable picture than the word “swamp”. The same is true for the words “rain forest” and “jungle” – which would you rather send your money to support?
Politicians caught on to this years ago authoring bills such as the “Clear Skies Initiative” which was a bill that actually weakened environmental standards. Most recently words such as “eco friendly” “organic” and “green” have been exploited and phrases such as “low fat” and “free range” have taken the same route. I’ve often thought that the simple solution to our current “health care” (oops there’s another misleading set of terms) crisis is that we could simply tax unhealthy junk foods and use that tax money to fund a socialized medicine system. Of course the problem would be in defining the words “unhealthy” or “junk food”, since most food manufactures claim their products are at least “safe” for us to eat.
Last year I relocated from the North woods of Wisconsin to Southwest Wisconsin – the Driftless Region – Coulee Country. It’s an area of high ridges, deep valleys, fertile soils and a moderate climate. Agriculture is alive and well in this area, though the topography of the area encourages smaller farmers and those who enjoy mixing some wooded land into their farming experience. It’s a melting pot of old hippies, back to the landers, Amish, and both organic and conventional/commercial farmers. In fact, the county I live in has the most registered organic farms in the state of Wisconsin.
Relocating here took a leap of faith for me – I didn’t know anyone, had no residual income, only a set of principals and a list of things I wanted to accomplish. I was elated to score a job working for an organic veggie farmer (who is my neighbor) the first month I lived in my new home. Some of the fields we worked were surrounded by woods, creeks and bluffs – an absolute joy to work. Others were near more conventional farms – though they were all certified organic. One such field was near a large organic free range egg farm. I’m a pretty informed vegan, so I knew the words “organic” and “free range” didn’t mean there was no cruelty involved. In fact there are really no standards built into our organic certification addressing or defining animal cruelty or how this relates to living conditions for animals.
Environmental awareness in organic farming pretty much focuses on not using unapproved chemicals and producing a sanitary product. The farm I worked near had about seven thousand “free range” laying hens stuffed into one building – and many thousand in another. These hens are raised as hatchlings indoors at another farm so they are unfamiliar with being outdoors. In fact, after they arrive at the egg farm, some never go outside and those that do often forage in yards of manure. Most of you reading this have seen photos or film of the large commercial battery caged chicken operations. I can tell you that the farm I worked near looked, smelled, and sounded about the same only these hens were not in cages.
Last July, when temperatures rose into the upper 90’s and the heat index much higher, I wandered into the chicken shed to have a look around. I couldn’t stay long as the ammonia from the droppings was so strong I literally could not take in a breath. Some exhaust fans were clogged with dust and debris and the one or two fans on the floor of the vast shed didn’t do much to relieve the stench. Often I would find dead chickens outside in the farm yard – most likely tractor hit and run victims – farmers often don’t slow down for chickens. Hens at these operations are shipped in just before egg laying age and kept for a given number of months. When egg laying drops off, they are corralled into a truck and shipped off to some meat operation I presume.
This particular farmer also raised steers – which are male dairy cattle. Like many farmers, he bought young bull calves from dairy farmers for a low price and fed them for some months before selling them to a broker for slaughter.
The manure from the steer operation piled up over the winter months to resemble small mountains. Little lakes of manure tea would form after rains and winter thaws – and this is where many of the free range egg laying chickens foraged.
Often I would stop and watch the hens scratch in the manure and breathe the ammonia filled air – and I would think to myself that there is NOTHING coming out of this environment that can be healthy. I often wondered about the good meaning folks at grocery and health food stores buying these organic products thinking they are really contributing to something good and wholesome – they are shielded from the truth.
One night in June we received 4 inches of rain. The next day at the farm I couldn’t help but notice the river of liquid manure rushing down a roadside ditch toward the small tributary that directly feeds the Mississippi river. The little river of manure flowed for weeks before finally drying up late in summer. Remember, all of this is inspected, approved, and stamped “organic”.
There is an organic dairy farm even closer to my new home that is practicing “rotational grazing”. Again, the illusion of clean, healthy, happy and free dairy cows is sent to the consumer and a promise of environmental steward-ism is projected as well. My life as an avid birder and an environmentalist has taught me that rotational grazing – even if it’s done by the book – which it usually is not – is very hard on grassland birds and other wildlife. Clipped and mowed pasture is simply not good wildlife habitat and those birds that attempt to nest in such places usually find their nests trampled. But more than this, there is an ignorance relating to dairy farming practices in the Upper Midwest. A farmer can rotationally graze their cattle all summer, but in winter, those cattle are confined to the cow yard, where manure and urine pile up all winter long. The farm I am referring to hosts dairy cows who live in manure up to their bellies in winter time. The farmer often parks his manure spreader outside the barn to receive manure from the mechanical barn cleaner. Manure spreaders are not designed to hold liquids so the urine and liquefied manure runs through the cracks and openings of the manure spreader and washes directly down the ditch and out into the pasture. Nitrogen in the ground water aquifer is not a good thing – it doesn’t matter if it’s organic manure or not!
It was in July one day when I saw a big black pick up truck pull into the egg farm. A tall man got out of the truck and the school aged kids who live on the farm came running – the tall man offered some attraction to the children, but what could it be? This man walked around the back of the truck and unloaded long chains of leg hold animal traps. He and the kids toted these traps toward the farm yard – my heart sank. Two days later I saw the tall man’s truck parading throughout the farm yard with a load of dead animals – raccoons, mink, opossum, and who knows what else. So there you have it – the violence of the egg industry is not contained to the chickens themselves –there is a broad ripple effect – we torture and kill wild, native animals so we can raise, torture, and kill non-native domestic ones.
After living here for my first year, I have lost almost all reverence for anything labeled “free range” or “organic”. These terms mean almost nothing to me. Of course it may be a step better than lacing our land with chemicals, but we can do better – much better.
(Organic) farming and birds….
Most of the folks that live and farm around my home are nice people, they’d do almost anything for you – except stop farming. Most of them really, wholeheartedly believe they are doing the land a favor – that they are very good land stewards, after all, this is what our government agencies are teaching them.
I’ve lived my entire adult life in Northern Wisconsin. In my short lifetime, I’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift in bird populations. Generally speaking, those bird species that tolerate human disturbance, such as modern logging and farming practices, are on the rise or at least holding their own. But those who do not tolerate such activity (and there are more species that don’t tolerate than do) are not doing very well. There are two groups of birds that have been hit particularly hard by our agricultural practices: our grassland birds and our forest birds.
Our grassland birds have been knocked down due to a variety of reasons, but foremost is habitat loss and destruction of active nests on farm land. Birds such as the Eastern and Western Meadowlark, Bobolink, Dickcissel, Northern Harrier, Savannah Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow and others, seek out tall grass lands for nesting as they have for millions of years. Unfortunately just about when these nesting birds have their clutches of young (early to mid June) the hay fields are ripe for harvest. Uncountable numbers of grassland birds’ nests are destroyed by cycle mowers and haybines across the Midwest every spring. If farmers would wait until mid July to harvest hay, most grassland nesting birds would have fledged their young, but farmers cut hay when it’s at its highest nutritional capacity. The drive to harvest hay 2 or 3 times per year is also a factor in the farmers decision making.
Bird species such as the Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Vesper Sparrow, Short-eared Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and others are in decline directly due to habitat loss. These birds live in brushy areas such as overgrown hedge rows, orchards, fence lines, and fallow pasture. Since most modern day farms find it lucrative to utilize every square foot of land for crop production or animal grazing, little habitat is left for the aforementioned species.
Before European Settlers came to this region, it was mostly forested with some of Southern Wisconsin remaining in Oak Savannah or tall grass prairie. There is a native bird of the central plains states named the Brown-headed Cowbird, which is considered a nest parasite. This species of bird feeds in short grass stubble and bare ground habitat. It evolved feeding around native bison, since the bison would clip the grasses down and create perfect habitat for the cowbird. Because bison are nomadic and migratory, the Brown-headed Cowbird had to find a way to follow the bison yet also find a way to raise a brood of young. It did this by laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, – an adaptation ornithologists have labeled nest brood parasitism. Grassland birds such as the Chipping Sparrow co-evolved with the Brown-headed Cowbird. Chipping Sparrows have at least two broods per season, often their first nest is parasitised, but the second nest is later than the egg laying period of the Brown-headed Cowbird, thus it survives.
When European Settlers came to this region, they cleared land – lots of land. The land stayed cleared with help from their livestock – which from the Brown-headed Cowbirds’ perspective was perfect foraging habitat. The cowbirds ranged out into nearby forest lands to parasitise local forest birds that had no defense to this. The more fragmented the landscape became, the fewer forest birds there were and cowbirds became more numerous. Nowadays our mowing of lawns and along rights of way have only added to the problem of forest fragmentation.
These three factors alone – the destruction of nests via hay harvesting, habitat loss by modern farming practices, and the effects of the Brown-headed Cowbird would be enough to push the effected species in decline, but there is more…
There have been two introduced bird species that have capitalized on our animal agricultural practices; the European Starling and the English House Sparrow. The European Starling feeds on grazed and clipped fields and lawns – their habitat requirements are similar to those of the Brown-headed Cowbird. The European Starling however is not a nest parasite but a secondary cavity nester (a bird which nests in used woodpecker holes, cracks and crevices and anywhere it can get out of the weather). It is an aggressive species so it often takes over the nests of our native species. Our animal farms have worsened the situation by offering grain and other feed during winter months and supplying starlings with ample niches in which to nest (in our many outbuildings and barns). This species has almost pushed some of our native species to extinction- however thanks to massive efforts by concerned citizens, species such as the Purple Martin and the Eastern Bluebird have at least temporarily been saved from extinction.
There is one more introduced species that thrives on our animal farms and in our cities – the English House Sparrow. This species cannot survive our Northern Midwest winters unless it can shelter itself in our outbuildings and keep itself fed in our feedlots and polluted urban parking lots and byways. It too is a secondary cavity nester, but will also nest on sheltered ledges and other niches. Like the European Starling, it is aggressive and will kill native bird species and take over their nests and nest boxes.
Would the Brown-headed Cowbird, the European Starling, and the English House Sparrow exist here in the Upper Midwest if it weren’t for animal agriculture? Would they exist if we were all vegan? The answer is probably yes, they would still be here- but in much lower numbers. Since animal agriculture requires so much more land to raise a calorie of food than non-animal farming, there would be less land in production if we were all vegan. Also, marginal lands that are not good for growing grains, fruits, and vegetables are now used for animal grazing, whereas if we were all vegan these lands would grow up into brush lands, savannahs, and forest. The vast corn and soy fields here in the Upper Midwest are biological deserts. If these crops were replaced by carrots and oats for human consumption, there would be little change in habitat for birds- however, fewer acres in overall production would be a benefit for wildlife.
There is one more detrimental factor of animal farming relating to birds; and that is feral cats. The feral cat is the second largest factor effecting the decline of our native bird species, (second only to habitat loss). Though our cities, towns, suburbs and such are definitely hot spots for feral cats, our dairy and other animal farms are perpetual sources.
My focus in this article has been on birds, but without a doubt many other wildlife species have been negatively affected by our animal agricultural practices. By our shifting to a vegan diet, our farmlands will be converted to lands where wildlife will have a larger piece of the pie.
The Wonder of Enzymes
Congratulations! If you are reading this you are either vegan or considering going vegan. If you’ve done some reading on the vegan diet/lifestyle, you may get the impression that if you are vegan nothing can go wrong, or be wrong, with your health. Vegans don’t get cancer, aren’t obese, don’t get diabetes or heart disease, don’t get Alzheimer’s disease or have strokes, have more energy and are perfectly healthy in every way – right?
Unfortunately, this often is not the truth. Don’t misconstrue – I’m not suggesting that the vegan diet is not healthy, but it is not the end of the road to a healthy lifestyle as much as it is just the beginning.
Not long ago, I was talking with an old friend of mine. He preached on and on about his new diet. He has lost weight, has more energy, and is a respected athlete. The diet he was bragging about was one of extremely high fat and animal products. But how could this be I wondered? This goes against everything I’ve read, learned and experienced as a vegan.
There are probably two reasons for this man’s success on his high fat diet. The first is simply that if any of us eliminates a food group from our diet we will lose weight – due mostly to ingesting fewer calories. But the second reason for his success is a bit more complex and offers a lesson for all people, vegan and non-vegan alike.
The loose thread toward unraveling this complex issue has it’s roots in our evolutionary history. We evolved as raw food vegans – or possibly as raw food vegetarians – perhaps ingesting small amounts of animal protein from time to time – I mention this though I realize this concept is highly argumentative and can never be “won”. The point I am trying to make however, is that raw/live foods contain live enzymes which are the cornerstone to our digestion and good health. Raw foodists have known this for a very long time.
Some of the enzymes we use to digest our food are produced in our bodies, and some need to be ingested in our food. When we cook our food or eat highly processed or refined foods, we are ingesting no beneficial enzymes. And as we age, our bodies tend to produce less enzymes – thus even the most devoted raw foodists may need an enzyme supplement.
Here in the great white north, we can usually ingest plenty of enzymes if we eat raw foods directly from our gardens and farmers markets during the warmer times of year. But what happens in the winter? Most of us tend to eat frozen veggies, which have been blanched and have no enzymes, and eat more complex carbohydrates in the form of soups, breads, casseroles, etc. After all, there is nothing like hot food on a cold blustery winter’s day.
If our food is not being digested properly due to a lack of enzymes, a toxic situation occurs in our bodies, which often leads to a cascade of health problems including; allergies, chronic fatigue, insomnia, female hormone imbalances, blood sugar fluctuations, high triglycerides, and cholesterol, liver and gall disease, muscle and joint pain, chronic sinus/respiratory problems, weight management issues, frequent colds and flu, and a host of other immunity problems – it is the beginning to the end. Again, this can occur whether we are eating vegan or the Standard American Diet.
Alpha-galactosidase is an enzyme produced in some seeds, nuts and roots and is also the enzyme in the common over-the counter product known as Beano. This enzyme helps us digest some complex carbohydrates (it’s not just for beans anymore). Many people lack this (and other) important enzyme(s) thus have difficulty digesting complex carbohydrates. This can lead to a condition known as Complex Carbohydrate Intolerance (CCI). It is most often mistaken for – or leads to many other conditions and ailments including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue and many, many more.
This is why so many people feel better when switching to a high fat/animal foods diet. Their bodies are lacking enzymes which break down complex carbohydrates, thus eating “carbs” causes a host of problems within their bodies. Eliminating carbohydrates from their diet makes them feel better. Now more of their food is being digested and they not only have more energy, they also lose weight. Unfortunately, as well informed vegans, we all know about the detrimental effects of eating animal fats and proteins.
We know that the earth could never support 6 billion people eating a high fat/animal foods diet; it also cannot support 6 billion people eating raw food vegan. There would need to be a steady stream of semi-trucks from the tropics and subtropics heading north in order for all of us to eat raw and fresh during winter months. In such a case, the resource usage would be incomprehensible. Yet producing and shipping supplemental enzymes is something the earth can support. I think everyone should eat as much fresh raw food as reasonably possible and we should all eat at least some raw fresh food everyday, but it may be unrealistic to expect everyone to be staunch raw foodists – especially this far north.
Thus, we have come full circle. Our species evolved in the tropics and subtropics sustaining itself on raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries. We expanded our range northward and with that expansion came a reduction in the average life expectancy until our society became sophisticated enough to aid the aging process with medical support. It may be true that humans are not designed to live this far north, but those of us who live here love it for its forests, lakes, rivers, skiing, sledding, etc. It is a high quality life, if we can utilize modern technology, including the ingestion of digestive aids.
Often, while promoting the vegan lifestyle, someone will say to me that they have tried going vegan and rattle off a number of past health problems; concluding that the vegan diet doesn’t work for them. The truth of the matter is that the vegan diet can work for everyone despite blood type, medical history or genetics. For every “failed” vegan, there are a number of devoted followers who will never try veganism – convinced that it will not work for them either. Thus it is of utmost importance to not only promote the vegan diet, but to promote a healthy vegan diet. And for many of us – especially those of us getting along in years, enzyme supplementation is key.
It should also be noted that manufactured enzymes are available in both animal and non-animal sources. Animal enzymes should not be taken since they are not vegan. Animal based enzymes also do not survive the highly acidic environment in the stomach and if they do, they work too slowly to aid the digestive process. If you buy enzymes, you should be purchasing a good quality, broad spectrum vegetarian based enzyme supplement. If you cannot find these locally, they are readily available on the Web.