The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

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I love a good piece of beef. Maybe a steak on special occasions, or just a hamburger off the grill in the backyard. But I’ve also been known to chow down energetically on Mom’s Sunday pork roast, and I still say her fried chicken is the undisputed Food of the Gods. There are probably a few dried-out, half-gnawed chicken nuggets under the driver’s seat in my car, too.

Yup, I’m a carnivore. 

I’m also intelligent enough to see the merit in all the hoopla about meat and its role in health and the environment. I’m not what most folks would call a ‘woke’ kind of guy, but I’m not exactly ‘sleepy,’ either. I understand the importance of making smart choices about the proteins in my daily diet for my own good and that of the planet. I accept that moving forward, plant-based proteins – and plants in general – are likely to play a much larger role in the choices I make about what I eat. I find myself asking a lot more questions about the proteins I consume and where they should come from. I have choices to make.

Right off, I could choose to stop eating meat altogether. Ain’t gonna happen. 

It’s a personal choice. I like meat. It tastes good and gives me a happy, warm feeling and a sense of after-dinner contentment. It provides essential amino acids, some very difficult to find in plants, and satisfies many other nutritional needs.

It requires the use of environmental resources, sure, and like a lot of other things, has some carbon footprint.

But I’m far more inclined to look at those more as an investment than a cost, especially when I see the growing clamor for protein from meat by hungry and undernourished people around the world, not to mention the efforts being made across the animal production industry to better manage the use of resources.  

What’s more, I still struggle with the idea of where all this will end. The beef industry obviously is in the cross-hairs of a lot of people, and it’s already having an effect when profit-minded retailers and restaurants make marketing hay out of a very public decision to no longer sell or promote beef products. Pigs and chickens require water and feed and create environmental issues, too. Maybe not as much as cows, but there are a helluva lot more of them than there are cows on the planet.

Do we simply accept the logic of the argument and say animal protein’s day on the consumer’s plate is over?

To me, all of life has an environmental cost of some sort, animal and human alike. Our day-to-day lives are not perfectly aligned with the environment. For instance, most of us discard our mattresses after a couple of years – and doing so makes up 450 million pounds of waste a year. Since the beginning of Covid, we are all now addicted to hand-sanitizing gel that degrades slowly and accounts for 60% of all drugs in sewage and wastewater.

The question is the value created, measured against the price we pay. I’m happy to listen to all arguments and sides on the issue. I’ll consider your case. But I reserve the right to make my own choice – to find my own balance point in the debate. But my second option is much tougher…

Do I increase the non-animal portion of my caloric consumption? 

I can make vegetable-based and laboratory-produced protein products part of my personal menu. I’ve tried lab-grown meat products, as well as some produced solely from plants, all in the name of intellectual curiosity and discovery. Some of them were okay. I might eat more of them from time to time. But I just couldn’t shake the sense that I was eating something artificial, something more lab-based than nature-based. 

I know the science that supports the products, but I still have this ingrained sense that I like a real hamburger a lot more than chemically-manipulated grass or a burger fresh not from the grill but the petri dish.

Irrational in some way, probably. But very human.

The smart side of my brain says this is most likely the best course for me moving forward. But I still have a few mental hurdles to get over before I go all-in on this option. Remember, I still have nightmares from time to time about the movie Soylent Green, and whoever came up with the damning label “Frankenfood” is a stone-cold marketing genius for the anti-meat, anti-GMO, and anti-science crowds. Enough said about the psychology of the fear of food.

I didn’t blink at all when I read about the report at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos that cited weeds as a potentially significant source of food for a hungry world. I’d already seen promotions from various back-to-the-earth groups (and maybe a few survivalists) making the same point, some offering actually to sell me weed seeds, presumably, so I could get a head start on the trend and avoid having to scrounge on my own along roadsides, in ditches, and almost everywhere in my neighbor’s lawn.

I couldn’t help but think about all those hours I spent as a kid destroying this invaluable food source when my parents made me pull weeds from our backyard garden for hours on end, either to build my character or punish some filial sin or probably both. 

Maybe I think even bigger and go all European in my approach.

The European Union’s food regulatory agency recently issued approval to the use of mealworms in animal feed – and as a human food. Other parts of the world embraced insects as food long ago. Nothing says “oh, yum!” to me more than a heaping plate of grubs, maybe with a side of worms and a nice side salad of dandelions and other home-grown weeds.

In our childhood – age 14, actually – my younger brother once ate three worms on a dare, and we all know how that turned out. He still can’t do eights and nines in the multiplication tables. 

Going European also would make it easier to leap to the next level of protein management.

Why not just man up and go vegetarian or vegan?

Put aside a Pavlovian liking for meat that goes back to the Eisenhower Administration. What kind of plant-centric diet should I follow?

Start with the basics. Vegetarians consume some animal-derived food products, such as milk and eggs, and vegans don’t. But I’m not exactly au courant on the ins and outs of vegan eating, so let me do a quick search in cyberspace and see if that offers any helpful guidance.

Right out of the Google gate, there’s what’s called the Whole Food Vegan Diet. This diet allows me to eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The Raw Vegan Diet also seems to involve no animal products – I suppose meaning fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and so on, only not cooked. Except for some foods that are allowed to be cooked to 104 degrees, for some reason. One set of Raw Vegan devotees apparently follow the diet up till 4 p.m. every day. After that, I suppose, anything goes.

A so-called Gluten-Free Vegan Diet just adds gluten to the list of what not to eat. Next, my search engine gives me the Fruitarian Vegan Diet, in which I’m supposed to avoid plants and eat only fruits, nuts, and seeds. Except some Fruitarians also prohibit the consumption of seeds since they contain future plants. 

The Paleo Vegan Diet restricts me to the pure and unprocessed foods consumed by my Paleolithic ancestors. That would let me eat lots and lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, seeds, and nuts, but no grains or legumes, since they weren’t around as food options for the Stone Age connoisseur. 

And a Freegan Diet permits consumption of processed vegan foods, including mock meats and vegan ice cream, whatever the hell that is.  

Now I don’t mean to disparage people who want to tailor their diets for health, environmental, religious, ethical, or other reasons.

But all I see in this search is a lot of “don’t eat this” and “don’t eat that,” at least at certain times or on specific days, and certainly never when Taurus the Bull is astrologically ascendant or some Kardashian hasn’t opined on the matter.

Try as I might, I suspect my efforts at plant-centric eating would leave me underfed, undernourished, and underwhelmed. 

Maybe I just avoid the whole subject with others…

…my friends, relatives, coworkers, church members, LinkedIn communities, Instagram and Twitter followers, neighbors, extended warranty salespeople, therapists, and anyone else I ever meet. If trapped into some comment on the subject, lapse into the double-talk and non-sequiturs I sometimes use to convey senility, or if absolutely necessary say all the politically correct things needed to get me out of the immediate pickle.  

I then retreat to my basement or my garage or my two-man tent in the backyard or my sofa-cushion fort in the rec room, where I surreptitiously chow down like the hungry dog I am on year-old frozen meatloaf, Slim Jims, Vienna sausages, Spam, BBQ chicken wings, and any other meat product I can hoard.

I join the growing legions of the Meat Underground, secure in my knowledge of the secret handshakes and high fives its members use to connect with like-minded but guilt-ridden meat junkies. There’s no 12-step program for us, so we just have to do the best we can, one day at a time.  

Maybe I just stop eating altogether.

My health plan is pretty good, so maybe I could simply opt for regular intravenous feedings of essential nutrients. That sounds like a pretty efficient, Spockian way to deal with the matter. 

I can’t face the final years of my life as a social pariah because I made the wrong choice about what kind of protein I consume. And it sure seems right now that any choice I make – short of not eating at all – is going to be morally offensive, irresponsible, perhaps sinful, environmentally callous, unscientific, irrational, politically charged, or just flat-out wrong to all the experts so eager to guide me to the truth on questions of food, nutrition, the environment, social responsibility, humanism, science, and morality.  

I just don’t know what to do. Other than, of course, grilling a hamburger while I ponder the matter further. And maybe a nice cold beer would help, too.

Let me get back to you on this one. 

7 Things to Know about Indoor Farming

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I walk into my local grocery store, grab one of the wet wipes to sanitize my cart, and head to the produce section. I pick up some strawberries and raspberries for my smoothies; celery and carrots for my afternoon snacks; and some butter lettuce…but wait, where is the kale?

It takes me a moment to scan the area, wondering where they could have moved it, and then I see it: a glowing, light-filled series of shelves filled with greenery interspersed with dill and parsley and all kinds of other herbs – and they all appear to have their roots still intact.

As I take a closer look, I read the signs: 

“We believe your herbs should not have to travel more than you have” and “By keeping the roots on, we keep all the flavor and goodness” and “We’re growing herbs in-store using 95% less water.”

I pause for a moment, considering the other items already in my cart…

My carrots, celery, and butter lettuce don’t have the roots on them, and they have had to travel across many states to get in my cart.

Does that make them less nutritious? Or worse for the environment? Or less flavorful?

Infarm, the company behind the installation in the grocery store, combined indoor farming with the “internet of things” technologies — to create a controlled ecosystem with an optimal amount of light, air, and nutrients. While considered a vertical farm, this type of farm falls within the larger umbrella of a group of farming techniques called Controlled Environment Ag (CEA). This includes greenhouses, indoor farms, and vertical farms that apply a combination of engineering, plant science, and computer-managed technologies to optimize growing systems.

As it turns out, there is a lot to know about this field of farming…

1. You can grow almost anything using Controlled Environment Ag

Did you know that 90% of our U.S. retail grocery tomatoes are grown indoors? There are more tomatoes grown indoors than flowers! There’s been a remarkable shift from just 20 years ago when that number was closer to 5-10%. Indoor agriculture employs a series of hydroponic technologies to grow almost anything.

When I spoke with Joe Swartz, Vice President at American Hydroponics, he explained that:

“CEA can grow just about anything, the technology is there. You can grow a banana tree if you’d like, but you must look at it as a matter of economics. Leafy greens and produce like tomatoes are more prominent not because that is the only thing you can grow but because it allows you to maximize space. These are also crops that can be sold at a market premium, that consumers will pay more for, for higher quality — such as tomatoes.”

Leafy greens, however, are the real growth driver here. About 90% of our leafy greens are still grown in fields, but over the next few years, market trends suggest that we will see that number shift to CEA.

More than 21 million pounds of lettuce is consumed in the U.S. every day, and while the amount of lettuce we consume has not changed significantly in recent years, where it’s coming from will. This is said to be the most significant opportunity in the indoor growing space. As of 2020, that translates to about 74 acres of operational vertical farmland in the world. About 41,000 indoor farms exist in the U.S. alone, from large to small operations.

2. The location of greenhouses and indoor growing facilities is critical

Gotham Greens is a well-known greenhouse situated on a rooftop in Brooklyn. I never stopped to consider that the location was anything but an available space with sunlight. The truth is, a ton of strategic planning goes into indoor farming location selection. The key considerations are how best to use waste energy. Heat, wind, air conditioning, electricity — these are all vital components of any indoor farming operation.

Neal Parikh, former VP of Capital Markets and Corporate Development at BrightFarms Inc. and current Managing Member at Lattice Impact Partners, explained that tapping into alternative energies is paramount to cost savings and sustainable efforts.

For example, greenhouse farms like Gotham Greens can harness rainwater from rooftops to reuse for irrigation. CEA locations near landfills can make use of the waste methane – these types of locations are considered co-generation facilities, in other words, facilities nearby that generate an energy source that the indoor farm needs. Locations near factories can take advantage of the waste heat or CO2 that they need to farm. This carbon capture or carbon sequestration from neighboring businesses saves time, money, and energy while reducing labor.

Another consideration, as the Infarm ads I saw in the grocery store suggest, is that farmers want their production location to be as close to their distributors (or grocery stores) as possible, to cut down on complications caused by traveling long distances. As both Neal and Joe pointed out, certain crops must travel long distances to be affordable, but there is an opportunity in indoor farming to bring producers closer to the end customer. To feed a growing population, we must include all kinds of farming as options for consumers.

3. Food safety is a top priority

As we’ve all seen in the news from time to time, leafy greens are the most vulnerable to food safety issues. The latest E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce have still left some worry in our minds. This is because leafy greens are produced and processed in such mass quantities that it is often hard to trace an outbreak. In CEA, E. coli, for example, can be traced back to one batch of romaine to isolate the incident quickly and accurately. Additionally, indoor farming allows for variables like animal waste contamination to be controlled and eliminated.

Between Yuma, Arizona and the Salinas Valley in California, these areas produce over 98% of the lettuce grown in the U.S. What greenhouses and indoor farms can provide, and all CEA for that matter, is a detailed tracing and inventory system, which makes pinpointing a specific batch more manageable than any other method of farming.

The CEA industry also upholds a rigorous standard for food safety, regulated by the CEA Food Safety Coalition. One of the first standards they formalized was standards for leafy greens.

4. Helping with climate change and population growth

CEA addresses many of the same environmental impacts that conventional or organic farming is addressing—but takes it one step further. We know the population is growing and estimates say we will reach upwards of 10 billion by 2050. This type of growth causes an imbalance in food demand and supply. Indoor farmers believe (and we agree!) that we need to embrace all kinds of farming methods and technologies to feed our growing world.

Controlling climate variables is much easier indoors than outdoors. With the technology of indoor agriculture, farmers can customize the temperatures, light exposures, CO2 intake, and more, for each plant they grow. As discussed earlier, conserving natural resources and upcycling waste heat is another chief benefit of CEA.

5. There are many challenges associated with CEA

CEA is a double-edged sword. One of the biggest hurdles, and debatably the reason why the indoor ag space is not more prominent, is that the initial investments in space and technology are immense.

Global Indoor Farming Technology Market Trends

As Joe Swartz alluded to earlier, profitability is a concern when it comes to crop selection and what to grow. There must be enough demand for the crop that a consumer will pay a higher price for a plant grown with controlled inputs.

In addition to the steep initial investments, operating costs are also astronomical. Producing sunlight, oxygen, air conditioning, and water filtration systems are no small line items. These challenges not only make it arduous to start a CEA, but hinder profitability in the short term – and if not run efficiently – in the long term.

The consumer-facing debate is that CEA is not considered organic because it is not grown in soil, therefore they cannot label as such. Supporters of indoor organics say that organic food is more about pesticide use (or lack thereof) than being grown from soil. This debate continues, making it difficult to land on an enticing marketing strategy for foods grown indoors. (We say conventional, organic, or CEA – each option is nutritious and should be available for the consumer to choose from!)

6. There is no magic to indoor ag; it takes hard work, just like traditional farming

Just like row cropping, indoor ag requires the same inputs—air, nutrients, sunlight, CO2, water. Furthermore, the technical acumen required for these operations is steep. The difference is that these inputs are produced inside, artificially, rather than naturally.

This requires specialized machinery, multi-faceted hydroponic technologies, and smart picking and packing systems. The development and implementation of hardware and software can be likened to the occupational knowledge of farming equipment in the field. Labor is also needed, as it is with organic or conventional farming.

While the methods are different, the result is the same: safe, good-for-you foods.

7. Vertical farming is not a new concept 

Vertical farming—a thing of the future! Well, not exactly. Automated greenhouses actually started popping up in the 1980s. Millions of dollars were invested in large greenhouses in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The technology was sold to the consumer as “by the 1990s, all of your food will be grown in a greenhouse mega farm!” Well, that never happened.

Robotic greenhouses and lettuce factories sprouted up thanks to a significant generation of public interest, which led to a fair degree of investment. Unfortunately, the technologies failed miserably. They were not market-ready, affordable products. This lack of demand led to closures. It took over 20 years to regain both consumer trust and substantial enough investments in the industry.

The good news is that technologies now exist to make vertical farming not only possible but economical.

Food Transparency Starts With Farming’s Digital Transition

man controlling drone flying above field

We are pleased to have Drew Slattery publish his article on Dirt to Dinner. Drew is the Human Dimensions of Change Lead for Farm Journal’s Trust In Food, where he applies human dimensions theory to empower agricultural producers in the U.S. to continuously improve their operations’ environmental, financial, and social outcomes. 

A lack of transparency into food production is one of the fastest-rising concerns among U.S. consumers. Plenty of people want to know they are buying food products that were ethically and sustainably produced – and for good reason. General Mills, Walmart, and McDonald’s are just a few of those companies whose sustainability reports are showing transparency in their supply chains.

But building this transparency from grocery store shelf to farmgate isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What you might not realize is that asking farmers for data about how they produce their harvest is akin to asking someone to show you their family’s detailed medical records. Would you be comfortable if your friends and neighbors had access to a detailed report on your health? Even if farmers are willing to open their record books, the supply chain systems that rely on agricultural products are incredibly complex, and that data can be lost along the way.

Enter: Agriculture’s digital transition.

By collecting data each season through digital tools and managing that data through a software platform, farmers are helping make transparency easier for the supply chain to achieve, all while improving the efficiency of the decision-making processes for their operation.

The companies involved are significant. As an example, Project Mineral, formerly Google X, has a robotic buggy that roams the fields capturing data to enhance farm productivity.

And John Deere has a field-sharing data management system to fully integrate equipment used for tilling, planting, and harvest.

And then there is Descartes Labs which has geospacing technology that consolidates information such as crop yields in certain parts of a country. And this is a very short list of companies in an ever-expanding industry.

Balancing Transparency With Privacy

Privacy is a major concern for the American farmer – and really, for the vast majority of all Americans. In Trust In Food’s most recent survey of farmer perspectives on this topic, 73% of respondents said they don’t trust private companies with data on their farm’s production while 58% don’t trust the government with this data.

Those perspectives closely mirror average Americans’ data concerns – in a 2019 study, for example, 79% of Americans expressed concerns over how companies use their data, while 64% expressed concern over government use of data.

In many farmers’ eyes, the details of how they manage the production on their farms is private. Trust In Food’s research has shown that in certain cases, up to half of producers don’t think consumers and supply chain actors have a right to know how their farm products were managed.

For many farmers, this data represents proprietary business plans and trade secrets. In the Midwest where the farmland market is incredibly competitive, there have been reports of farmers who implement regenerative soil health practices yet have their land scooped up by others who want to benefit from their years of work to build soil health. So for many farmers, it feels safer to keep their cards close, especially if they have good things to share.

Challenges Abound With Agriculture’s Digital Transition

More than half of the farmers we surveyed this year (62%) said that they don’t use a digital (software) platform to manage their farm’s production data.

Put another way, only about 38% of those we surveyed are able to consider providing the transparency the food supply chain requires in today’s connected world.

Without digital collection and management of farm-level data, there is no way for the supply chain to provide transparency for the final product consumers purchase.

In addition, many farmers could be missing out on insights available to them through a digital platform. Although this is an incredibly complex environment for farm businesses to operate within, here are three of the key drivers that might explain why farmers aren’t using digital tools more universally, based on our research:

  • The cost associated with setup is too high, especially since there is not always a guarantee of a return on investment for farmers. Oftentimes, these data and insights don’t provide farmers with any benefit, such as a financial premium for providing greater transparency into the food products they grow or raise. Instead, organizations downstream in the supply chain reap the benefit.
  • It is a technically complex process, and many farmers lack the training and understanding to do it alone.-At the same time, the support network of advisers and service providers to help farmers transition to regenerative practices using software systems to capture data illustrating that transition, is limited as well.
  • Trust is a challenge. Farmers don’t want to see their detailed production data fall into the hands of groups they don’t trust.

Patience Is A Virtue

What does all this mean? Consumers are pushing for more detailed transparency into on-farm production, and as a society, we are transitioning by focusing our buying power more and more on sustainable products. Yet the data bridge onto the farm remains hard to cross. In a way, we can’t blame them. Going back to the example of sharing your medical data – how farmers farm is as personal to them as sharing our cardiovascular report would be to our community.

The encouraging news for the public and for farmers is that many producers are embracing digital ag and rushing into the future because they are in agriculture and food for the long term. They see a future in which incentives will shift and farmers will indeed be rewarded for their stewardship and transparency into farming practices, in a responsible, safe and privacy-protected way. Additionally, many organizations are working to support them, ensuring farmers don’t bear all of the costs for outcomes that benefit our environment and society at large.

Why are my groceries so expensive right now?

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Dirt to Dinner decided to take a deeper look behind the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recent projection of a 2.2 percent increase in food costs in May, on top of a 3.5 percent increase the year before.

Just how much more expensive is our food?

The most immediate thing we learned was how complex the answer to those questions really are. No one or two simple causes are out there. Instead, it’s a complex mix of factors – some matters of macroeconomics, some of unique circumstances and situations, some of the changing demands placed on our food system both here in the United States and around the world. What’s more, it seems likely at least some of them will continue for a while to come. Let’s dig into the details behind the numbers, and see what we can learn and what we can do about it.

Inflation is all around us. The latest Consumer Price Index from BLS tells us prices have climbed by 5 percent year over year, the largest jump since 2008. Sharp rises in energy costs (29 percent) are a major factor behind that number, as anyone who filled a car with gas recently can readily attest.

The prices we pay for our food are right at the top of the list of greater expenses. On a global scale, the BLS numbers sound downright reasonable. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that the global Food Price Index has jumped 30.8 percent above last year’s figure, to its highest level since 2014. Higher costs for oils, meats, dairy, and cereal products all contributed to the rise – and the increasing worries about food insecurity that come with them.

That sobering picture makes the 2.2 percent number from BLS sound almost reasonable. But for anyone who does the daily shopping, the reality behind that innocent-sounding figure quickly gives way to an immediate and personal recognition of just how significant 2.2 percent can be – especially as part of a steady stream of superficially innocuous annual increases.

What’s making it more expensive?

Let’s look at some reasons for food price increases, from the big-picture perspective.

  • The cornerstone commodities that provide the raw materials for our food are more expensive. Remember what you paid to fill your tank with gas a year ago? Wheat that sold for just one $5 per bushel one year ago today is near $7. Corn that sold for roughly $3 per bushel in August 2020 today is $6.85. Soybeans that were $8.33 in May of last year are almost $16 today.
  • Demand for food and commodities is growing, and our supply of reserves is tighter than before. No one today needs to be reminded of the increases in global population and economic growth that fuel steady growth in food demand. What’s less well recognized is the narrowing gap between global food production and global consumption. The simple fact is, in the current environment we are drawing down our reserve stocks. And when strong demand meets shrinking supply, prices go up.
  • Weather problems in key parts of the world add to the supply and demand imbalance, pushing prices up and increasing price volatility. Whether it’s climate change or normal weather cyclicality, some important growing regions around the world are experiencing record dry conditions in key production areas in South America, Russia, Australia, and the American West and Upper Midwest. Worries about crop sizes fuel a steady upward pressure on commodity prices.
  • The cost of producing commodities is rising. The rapid run-up in energy costs has a profound effect on-farm costs. Diesel fuel for farm equipment, gas for vehicles, propane and natural gas to dry wet crops, even fertilizers – all contribute to higher production costs, which inevitably factor into the final prices paid by food consumers.
  • Labor shortages complicate both farming and food manufacturing. Farmers and food manufacturers alike complain that they simply can’t find all the workers they need to cope with the current situation. And when they do, they often find they must pay more, if only to contend with the disincentives created by COVID relief payments. Department of Agriculture labor statistics indicates the number of workers hired by farmers and ranchers was down 11 percent from year-ago levels as recently as April, to about 613,000. The drop occurred despite an April increase of 6 percent over the previous April’s labor rates, to an average of $15.97 per hour.
  • Supply chain disruptions add to costs. As if labor shortages and higher fuel costs for hauling commodities and delivering food products weren’t enough, our finely tuned food distribution system is still adjusting to yet another cycle of changes and interruptions in delivery channels.  On a global scale, we’ve had to wrestle with complications in the location and availability of the ocean freight used to carry commodities around the world – not just what the United States exports, but also what we import to satisfy our food demands. Events such as the recent shutdown of the Suez Canal and the cyberattack that paralyzed JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, provide evidence of just how quickly and pervasively these disruptions can ripple across the entire food system.
  • More out-of-home dining. The Covid pandemic led to a dramatic decline in the amount of food eaten out of the home, requiring our food system to adjust to moving a greater share of the food supply to retail channels. With the pandemic now appearing to ease, the system must once again adjust to a more traditional pattern. That means change to packaging, more complicated transportation logistics and a raft of other costly changes. BLS points out that the overwhelming proportion of the increase in food costs came from a run-up on prices for food eaten away from home – a whopping 4 percent, compared with 0.7 percent for food eaten at home. We’re going out to eat once again – and paying more for the privilege.
  • Food waste remains an issue. We waste as much as a third of our food every day and every year. One online firm specializing in market data analysis estimates that about 1.6 billion tons of raw food products are never turned into consumable food to feed the hungry. Such waste only adds to the inflationary pressures of the big supply-demand picture.

We also need to remember that we may have been lulled into a touch of complacency about our food prices over the last decade. Food price inflation has been largely muted in recent years. Between 2013 and last year, for example, annual food price inflation averaged roughly 1.4 percent, with 2016 and 2017 both coming in with less than a single percentage-point rise.

Economists say the current inflationary prices eventually will ease. But few are willing to say when, or by how much. As our look at the causes of food price inflation showed, many of the factors driving up food costs are likely to be with us to one degree or another for some time to come.

But what does it all mean for me?

For most of us, the dizzying array of things that influence our food prices are less important than their immediate effect on our pocketbooks.

Dirt-to-Dinner decided to take a look at the real-world – or at least an admittedly unscientific glimpse of what the CPI data actually means to U.S. food consumers.

A sincere thank you to the D2D Network of Unofficial Field Reporters: Gary Tomasello of San Jose, CA; Jake Cuaron of Denver, CO; Dick & Tanyia Williams of Jacksonville, FL; and Frank & Kathe St. Lawrence of Fairhope, AL.

We asked our network of friends across the country to help us with an exercise that builds on some insightful and valuable work done by the Toledo Blade. That highly respected newspaper created a market basket of 15 common food items and tracked its cost in 2003, 2008 and 2011.

We elected to continue that work by seeking current price information for the same 15-item food basket, but with data from the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, deep South, upper Midwest, Gulf Coast, Mountain region, and West Coast.

Our results are intended to provide a simple snapshot of what food price inflation really means at the consumer level – not a rigorous, statistically reliable economic analysis. Our results show the cumulative effect of what may seem like small annual cost increases.

We invite our readers to use the item checklist to take a closer look at what food inflation means for each of you.

The exercise taught us as consumers one very important lesson: shop smart.

We were surprised and pleased to see that the retail food industry seems to be doing its part to help consumers deal with rising food costs.  We found numerous examples of sales and discounts for various items on the list, as well as some potential savings from house brands and locally sourced food items. In some cases, those savings helped reduce the overall basket costs significantly.

Cyberattack at JBS: Understanding Meat Technology

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The best part of the conversation with my friend was her honesty. “Lucy when I think of how we get our meat, I think of Yellowstone, the TV series. It’s Kevin Costner and a bunch of hot cowboys rounding up cattle under a gorgeous setting, herding the cows into a warehouse where they come out the other side as my Bubba burgers. So I’m pretty unaware of how technology plays into this”.

After we got done laughing, I realized that was a fair point. After all, the food supply chain is not visible to most and the technology used in ag is not something people think about on a regular basis.

I assured my friend the cyberattack did not make our food unsafe and that there wouldn’t be any shortages. I told her I would use this week’s blog post to explain the entire cattle-to-meat process, the role technology plays, and what the ransomware attacks did. And, I even promised to sneak in a photo of those hot cowboys from Yellowstone.

What Happened to JBS?

Let’s start with the basics. Brazilian-based JBS, the largest meat supplier in the world experienced a ransomware attack. The FBI believes that REvil, one of the most advanced Russian cybercriminals in the world, hacked into JBS computer systems and either encrypted its files or shut its system down in all U.S. beef plants, as well as its meatpacking facilities around the world.

In return, the hackers wanted money; JBS ended up paying them $11 million in ransom. The payment was in bitcoin.

In the past, criminals kidnapped people in exchange for money. Today, it seems that kidnapping computer systems in return for U.S. dollars or cryptocurrency is a more lucrative business.

What Does Technology have to do with Cattle?

Think of processing cattle like an auto assembly line, but in reverse. When a car is made, 30,000 parts must be assembled before it gets shipped to the auto dealership. Cattle, on the other hand, get taken apart into over 1,000 SKUs. We eat about 63% of the animal and the rest goes into just about every other industry imaginable. Most people don’t think of cattle when imagining the ingredients used in medicine, pharmaceuticals, soaps, fine bone china, leather, and even asphalt.

It’s Very Complicated

In the United States alone, more than 100,000 cattle are processed six days a week. JBS produces between 20%-25% of global volume — further evidence of South America’s rapid growth in livestock production. The technology involved to create the assembly line of 1,000 SKUs is intricate and complicated.

First, the cattle need to be trucked from the grasslands or the feedlot to the processing plant. An inventory management system is needed to purchase the cattle. As they are waiting outside, they are individually tagged and identified. Each animal has its own identification code that follows the various body parts at every stage. For instance, a particular code is associated with the ground beef you buy at Walmart and the steak at Kroger’s. And the tongue that is sent to Japan. And the liver that winds up in Egypt.

After the hide is stripped off the animal, the carcass goes into a washing station. Think of a car wash. It gets cleaned and the goal is to remove and kill all pathogens. Computer settings control the amount of water, spray, and heat. After the wash, USDA employees use computer-driven scanners at each processing plant which inspect for pathogens, grades each carcass and make sure the facility meets strict HACCP requirements.

Technology is critical to managing the 2,000-plus employees in the facility. Each employee in these meat-processing plants stands next to a large, precise, and sophisticated assembly line. The line keeps moving so each worker has to keep pace by cutting their specific parts such as the tenderloin, ribs, and strip loin, etc. The technology tells the plant manager how many workers are present, how productive they are, and if there is any wasted meat.

Quiet on the Set

As in Yellowstone, the typical meat plant is much like a movie studio, with hundreds of people all doing different jobs to create the final product, a polished cinematic gem. Everybody has a part to play and a carefully crafted script to follow, and that script is run by technology.

If the lights are wrong or the sound isn’t perfect, or the sets or costumes aren’t completed or the actor flubs a line, the whole process grinds to a halt. Cattle processing demands the same coordinated ballet.

Plant managers depend on computers for that coordination and control – to pull dozens if not hundreds of actions altogether, effectively, and efficiently.

After this incredible coordination of processing the animal –where does all the beef and the over 1,000 different SKUs go? Managing and sending all those parts is definitely not executed with an Excel spreadsheet and a fax machine. Complex automated inventory management systems send each item boxed and shipped around the country and throughout the world. In the average meat facility, about 5,000 animals go through the system every day.

And each animal produces about eight boxes of beef which must be invoiced and sent to the right locations. While there are giant coolers that hold about 100,000 boxes of beef, the product can’t sit there for more than 24 hours. Every day, about 60 trucks come to the facility to pick up the 40,000 boxes that must be trucked out to their customers.

Every step from the ranch and/or feedlot through the processing plant to the grocery store or restaurant is handled with a complex data management system. When that breaks down as it did in the case of the JBS hacking, it halts the entire beef production – from steaks to animal feed. This time the hackers picked an exceptionally good time to infiltrate JBS’s system.

For the next three months, beginning on Memorial Day, meat consumption is at an all-time high, and the number of cattle that get processed each week increases by about 10%-15% to meet the needs of worldwide grilling, barbecues, and overall summer fun. It is very encouraging to see how quickly JBS was able to respond and get its systems up and running.

Keep Calm and Carry On

According to NPR, REvil has indicated that the agricultural industry will be a target. So far, Mondelez, Molson Coors, Campari, Arizona Beverages, MGP Ingredients, Wendy’s, Huddle House, Caribou Coffee, Dunkin’, and Sonic have all had cybersecurity incidents within the past few years.

It looks like this is just something corporate America has to live with. Given that these were not as well-publicized as the JBS attack, we can assume that this will be an ongoing issue where the company will handle it and keep its business operational. It is a matter of who has the better technology.

5 Facts about Animal Antibiotics

Whether you’re looking for a quick bite of information or want to drop some knowledge on your dinnertime companions, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

One of the biggest questions we get asked is if we should avoid animal antibiotics. Many consumers will only purchase meat with the “antibiotic-free” sticker on top. But are these stickers meaningful or just clever marketing? What are animal antibiotics, and are they in our food?

1. What are animal antibiotics?

When humans are sick, we go to the doctor, and he or she usually prescribes us an antibiotic to get better. The same is true for animals! Farmers give animals antibiotics when they’re sick because it’s simply inhumane not to.

2. Why do farmers give animals antibiotics?

We answered the first part of this question above. When animals are sick, they need antibiotics to get better, just like us. But, this also keeps the ill animal from passing an infection through the herd. Just like we don’t want to get others sick when we’re unwell, the same goes for animals.

Antibiotics are also given to support animal growth rates, meaning they’re provided routinely in feed or water to help the animals grow more quickly, getting them to us faster. This is because if the animal is not fighting off a sickness, then their bodies will spend their energy growing instead of trying to stay healthy.

3. If I don’t buy meat with the “antibiotic-free” sticker, am I eating antibiotics?

Absolutely not. The FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all animals to be clear of any antibiotic residue before it’s harvested. They also regulate the maximum dosage of antibiotics based on type and weight. The U.S. National Residue Program tests for any chemical or drug residues and foodborne illnesses in all animal products, and this testing is consistent.

So, no, we don’t eat antibiotics. All animal products, including beef, chicken, turkey, pork, eggs, milk, and fish, are antibiotic-free by the time they get to the grocery store.

4. What happens if I eat animals treated with antibiotics?

Nothing. Nothing will happen because we are not eating antibiotics in any animal products ever. Many people think that if they eat meat without the “antibiotic-free” sticker, their bodies become resistant to the “antibiotics” in the meat. But, this is not true.

5. What about antibiotic resistance in farm animal production?

The FDA enacted a five-year plan to curtail antibiotic use in animals. It includes that no medically important antibiotics (meaning those that also treat human bacterial infections) can be used to treat animals for growth, and no medically important drugs, like penicillin, can be used to treat animals at all.

Many major food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, and food producers have also promised to reduce antibiotic use, especially for growth purposes. Research on animal gut health is also being done to minimize the need for antibiotics.

5 Benefits of Cheese

Whether you’re looking for a quick bite of information or want to drop some knowledge on your dinnertime companions, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

Happy National Cheese Day! And boy, does the D2D team love cheese. However, many people believe that cheese, along with most dairy, is bad for our health. It turns out there are many benefits to incorporating cheese into your diet!

1. Dairy is good for us!

Let’s get this one straight right away. Dairy is good for our health. We need dairy in our diets because it’s high in many different nutrients, like calcium, vitamins, and minerals. The USDA recommends consuming 2-3 cups of dairy a day, whether that’s milk, yogurt, or cheese.

2. Cheese is a good source of fat

Now, we know what you may be thinking: we shouldn’t eat a lot of fat! That’s not exactly true. Several studies say we should not be limiting our daily intake of fats because they’re a necessary part of our diet. They give us energy and help the body perform everyday tasks.

However, we should keep an eye on and try to limit our intake of saturated fats. Saturated fat consumption should be under 10% of our daily calories. So, if you find your diet high in saturated fats, consuming low-fat cheese and other dairy products may be beneficial.

3. Cheese is high in vitamins and minerals

Because cheese is made from milk, it’s high in many vitamins and minerals. These include vitamins A, B12, B6, D, and K, calcium, potassium, iodine, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and riboflavin. Cheese also contains omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

4. Cheese may protect against heart disease

Many people believe that dairy, including cheese, increases the risk of developing diet-related illnesses. However, this is not the case. Studies show that cheese and other dairy products, both low and full fat, not only don’t cause diet-related illnesses but may even protect us against both cardiovascular disease and stroke risk.

One study even showed that a high cheese intake led to an 8% lower risk of coronary heart disease and a 13% decreased risk of stroke.

5. Cheese can be a good source of probiotics

We know we need probiotics! And, we thought that we could only find them in kombucha, yogurt, and sauerkraut. It turns out we were wrong. According to Harvard Health, some types of cheese, specifically those aged and not heated after, contain probiotics. These cheeses include cheddar, parmesan, swiss, and gouda.

Are Farmer Protests in India a Cautionary Tale for Americans?

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What’s behind the protests?

How can you keep food prices low for consumers but expect farmers to pay more to grow that same food? The brouhaha between farmers and the government of India began in 2018 with the passage of three farm laws altering long-standing farm policies. In simplest terms, the laws sought to change the way most farmers sold their products into the market, largely by deregulating wholesale markets. Rather than rely on the traditional middle-man system of wholesalers as purchasers, farmers would be allowed to sell to other commercial entities, and to use electronic and other new mechanisms for finding buyers.

On the surface, it all sounds very reasonable. The idea: give farmers more freedom to seek the best deal for what they produce. They no longer would have to rely only on the middlemen to provide the minimum guaranteed prices dictated by the government.

But change is rarely warmly embraced. And for India, the idea of reform affects not just the interests of farmers and overall food security, but the national economy and social structure, as well.

Over time, opposition to the laws has steadily escalated. News reports around the world tell of tens of thousands of protestors, many living in tent cities indefinitely, and many using tractors and other farm equipment to block and disrupt traffic to call attention to their cause. Video footage of angry men and women has become commonplace, seen by consumers around the world.

What prompts such intense debate – and protest?

To understand the impasse between the government and farmers, it’s essential to recognize the unique nature of Indian agriculture.

Farming and agriculture represent by far the largest component of the country’s employment. In India, just over half of its 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Some credible estimates say as much as 70 percent. That means any changes to fundamental agricultural policies stand to affect between 600 and 800 million people in very meaningful ways.

In the United States, by comparison, farmers represent only 2 percent of the total population. The food and ag sector accounts for about 22 million jobs – or roughly 11 percent of our national workforce.

Despite the presence of a robust commercial farming sector in the United States, the overall agricultural picture in India is dominated by small land-holdings. America and India have comparable arable land areas. But the average farmer in India works roughly two and a half acres of ground, compared to the average U.S. farm of 444 acres. The prevailing small size of India’s average farm limits income opportunities and discourages investment in equipment, infrastructure, and other productivity enhancements.

Many farmers simply eke out a year-to-year existence. In many cases, their families have to live on less than $1,000 a year. They look to state support as the principal means not of growth, but of basic economic survival. This struggle to survive on very low, if any, profits, has manifested in over 300,000 farmer suicides since 1995. In 2018, there have been an average of 10 suicides a day.

So Indian agriculture isn’t simply a food-producing sector. It is a cornerstone of the entire society. Since the 1960s, national policies have attempted to accommodate both needs.

Government subsidies assist producers and rural residents in a number of ways: financial assistance for fertilizer, free electricity for water pumping, loan forgiveness, and direct financial aid all help hundreds of millions of producers stay afloat.

Protestors are deeply concerned about what happens to the government-guaranteed minimum prices for commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar, and other staples, which drive annual production on even the most un-economic farms. These supports have assured ample supplies for the domestic marketplace – and economic survival for millions.

In some instances, this policy has made exports possible. Today, for example, India is one of the world’s leading producers of wheat, cotton, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables, and even livestock — and among the largest global producers and exporters of rice, sugar, and wheat.

To protect consumers, the government has provided additional subsidies to keep prices low for basic foods, including rice. On one hand, food prices have to remain low to alleviate hunger and poverty and on the other hand, the low food prices are making life extremely difficult for over half the Indian population. This financial double-whammy of supporting two sometimes opposing sides of production and consumption can lead to unbelievable price distortions.

For example, the price of rice on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CMA) was actually lower than the fixed government price of rice in India, the largest rice-producing country in the world. A metric ton of rice costs $233 on the CME yet it costs $254 a ton for consumers in India. “A kilo of rice, which has an economic cost of 37 rupees to the taxpayer, is sold to two-thirds of the global population for 3 rupees.” as reported by Bloomberg’s David Fickling and Andy Mukherjee. Wheat support prices in India were 25 percent above the prevailing Chicago wheat futures price, the report also noted. To shield consumers, subsidies make the cost disparity magically disappear.

Changing market prices may have altered the arithmetic since that day, but the larger point remains valid.  Subsidies can distort markets – and create unintended but difficult consequences.

Arguments for reform:

  • Existing policies are economically unsustainable
  • Policies perpetuate poverty/dependence on state support
  • Policies create environmental concerns (fertilizer overuse, water depletion)
  • Reform promotes productivity improvements, long-term competitiveness for global market opportunities
  • Best for long-term interests of nation, economy, farmers, consumers

Arguments against reform:

  • Smaller producers (which are the majority of farmers) would lack the market clout to bargain with larger, more powerful commercial entities – and thus would wind up at their mercy
  • Increases the power of the larger commercial farming interests across India and invites greater involvement by multinational agricultural companies
  • Leaves far too many people economically vulnerable
  • Potential displacement of a huge number of people
  • Accelerates migration to urban centers

Is there a future for small and independent Indian farmers?

Proponents of reform say existing policies are simply financially unsustainable. Opponents of change say the risks are simply too large for too many people – and the threat to social order too great.

Both sides in the dispute say they won’t budge. All three farming laws have been passed but suspended by the Indian courts as discussions among farmers, farm groups and government officials continue.

But the clock is ticking for India. As the debate drags on, India’s population continues to expand. As it does, the twin responsibilities again emerge. Population growth means more mouths to feed – and more people dependent upon agriculture for their livelihood.

Various international agencies and institutions project that India will become the world’s most populous country within this decade. The total population is projected to climb from 1.3 billion to 1.7 billion by 2050 – within what amounts to a single generation.

That means another 400 million consumers and job seekers will enter the fray – well above the entire current population of the United States, and only slightly less than the number of people in the 27 nations making up the European Union.

The situation in India may add a perverse new economic dimension to the notion of agricultural “sustainability.” Can the country continue to afford the enormous expense of the current approach? Or must it seek some form of greater engagement with an open, competitive marketplace? What approach will best allow Indian agriculture to survive? What’s best for both producers and consumers?

What does any of this mean to Americans?

For the average person watching the video of men and women protesting the new laws, the situation may seem a world away. The truth is that decisions made in the coming months will have an impact on food prices, availability, the stock market, and more. And the same goes for here in the U.S.

Most obviously, the simple humanitarian aspects of the situation should matter to everyone. We are all food consumers.

Food is something we share. It unites us and ties us all together in a shared common basic human need. It is a cornerstone of the philosophy behind Dirt-to-Dinner. When any person’s food security is at risk, we all should pay attention.

For students of the global food system, the outcome will have important ramifications for how food moves around the world.  India already is a major factor in many global markets – rice, cotton, sugar, and wheat, to name just a few. Future policy decisions will help determine whether that involvement in global markets expands – or not. If India’s producers elect to apply their productive capacity to capturing more foreign market opportunities, the world will see an even larger player in the international food marketplace.  Consumers everywhere could have more choice, and also enjoy the discipline imposed on food prices when nations truly compete to supply the world’s food needs.

On another level, the situation in India should provide a cautionary tale for food consumers everywhere. It demonstrates the importance of making balanced decisions about the agricultural policies and programs that create our modern food system. It shows what happens when our best intentions — to provide food and incomes for all — veer too far from economic reality. The tragic decline of Venezuela’s economy and rampant food insecurity already have provided one important object lesson in fundamental food economics. It’s a lesson we all need to remember, from Delhi to DC, and everywhere in between.