Oakridge Dairy Overcomes Industry Challenges

Oakridge cow

This fall, I visited 2,700 Olympic ladies. It wasn’t at the Tokyo Olympics, but here in New England. Oakridge Dairy is a fifth-generation farm located in Ellington, Connecticut. Established in 1890, the Adolph-Bahler family started growing tobacco, potatoes, and dairy cows. Now, they have a powerhouse of 2,700 Holsteins that produce over 21 thousand gallons of milk per day – an Olympic-sized feat, for sure!

While other dairy farms in the nearby area closed over the years, Oakridge expanded by adhering to the motto:

Quality does not happen by chance; it’s done on purpose.

Through the generations, this family has endured and responded to changing consumer preferences, new technology, increased regulation, and a host or other challenges. They currently have three family members who actively maintain their families’ passion for all things dairy.

Challenges in the Dairy Industry 

We wondered how they, and the dairy industry overall, are faring in today’s tough environment. Dairy has been mistakenly blamed for causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lactose intolerance, pushing consumers over to nut ‘milks’ such as almond, coconut, and cashew. And climate change has turned the spotlight on agriculture, specifically methane-producing cattle and dairy cows. In addition, the regulatory environment is much stricter on manure run-off and smell pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But the truth about dairy farms and their products is not all doom-and-gloom. In fact, it’s the opposite. Let’s start with what these bovine athletes give us. Many of the necessary nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy are found in just one 8-ounce glass of milk. It helps us make muscle, blood, bone, skin, hair, and hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout our blood. It regulates the nerves, muscles, and heart while also being a building block of our genes.

Milk nutrients help protect against cell damage and infection. It helps with brain functions of memory and thinking, as well as food for our microbiome. Finally, there is research that shows dairy can protect from both heart disease and colorectal cancer.

To combat the demand for alternative products, the dairy industry is becoming more creative in addressing consumer concerns. A recent McKinsey study on consumer behavior toward dairy shows that 42% of consumers perceived alternative milks as health and wellness solutions, a 14% increase from 2019.

Dairy farmers around the world are using data-driven insights to create new varieties of dairy to meet customer needs and preferences. Some choices are flavored milk, lactose-free milk, reduced sugar milk, and high-protein yogurt, milks and other products.

Some cheeses such as Swiss, provolone, gouda, cheddar, Edam, Greyere, and cottage cheese have been shown to be beneficial for our gut microbiome. And don’t forget Kefir as a fermented source of about 30 species of probiotics that aid gut health.

So, how is Oakridge handling these challenges?

The Milkman is Back

The Adolph-Bahler family is conscious that not everyone understands how a dairy farm operates. They have a delivery service called The Modern Milkman that delivers fresh milk, local eggs, butter, yogurt, and cheese within a 50-mile radius of their farm.

To further this community offering, Oakridge Dairy want their neighbors to see where milk comes from. They host field trips, educational events, and farm fairs over the course of the year to enhance transparency for all customers. Quite literally inviting them in to see exactly where the milk comes from and how it ends up in their carton or cheese.

Oakridge Dairy strives to be the farm of the future in a world where people know their farmer.

Feeding People with the Environment in Mind

There is no denying the environmental impact of feeding 7.9 billion people, 1.7 billion cattle and pigs, and 34 billion chickens around the world. However, each year, sustainability across the ag sector improves. Farmers around the world, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, are giving humans, animals, and birds the nutrition needed while minimizing the impact on land, water, and air.

This is also true of dairy, where farmers have made significant strides over the decades to produce more milk using less land and fewer cows emitting less methane. The average cow in the U.S. produces about 7.8 gallons of milk per day, an increase from 5.7 gallons in 1999.

For the cows to produce that much volume, they eat about 100 pounds of food and drink 50 gallons of water each day, equating to an acre to feed one cow and calf for a year!

While the number of dairy herds has dropped from approximately 46,000 in 2013 to 36,000 in 2023, the number of dairy cows has remained the same due to dairy farm consolidation.

Yet milk production has increased by an extra two gallons a day per cow than more than 20 years ago. This is due to the science around animal feed.

Animal feed science for dairy has increased cow digestibility and decreased methane. Cows eat plants for their diet, but they lack the ability to efficiently digest their food. Hence the methane burps we’ve heard about in the news the last few years.

To digest the food most efficiently, the cows need a strong set of microflorae such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi, archaea, and bacteriophages. Data science has allowed feed companies to match the perfect microbiome and feed combination for a specific farm to enhance yield production.

Oakridge Dairy’s ‘Cow Power’

Methane, or anaerobic digesters are an environmental solution for all that manure and urine. Each day, the waste is cleaned out of the barn and placed in a big lagoon covered with a rubber dome.

The gases, which otherwise would go into the atmosphere, are captured inside the dome and used for a variety of purposes. The farm can use the gas to generate their own electricity, thus eliminating the need traditional coal-powered electricity. If the farm generates excess energy, it can be sold back onto the grid as an alternative energy source for the surrounding area.

Additionally, the captured gas can be injected into natural gas pipelines and used to power renewable natural gas vehicles. It is fun to think that the electricity used to charge electric vehicles could be run on cow power. These digesters are not cheap and can be cost prohibitive for farms with dairy herds of less than 500 cows. Another reason for dairy consolidation.

Oakridge Dairy implemented a digester at its farm. Not only does the digester give them enough energy to power the electricity needed on their farm but depending on the time of year and energy prices, they also can sell it back on the grid.

Another great benefit is that Oakridge Dairy uses the solid waste for the cow’s bedding. It sounds a little unsanitary, but when we visited the farm, we saw that the digestor heats up the manure and kills all the bacteria.

The heated manure goes through another heating and drying process which makes it fluffy and clean for the cows to use when they lay down.

Cows lay down for about 14 hours a day, so it is critical that their bedding is clean and bacteria free.

Artificial Intelligence & Dairy

Data management and artificial intelligence definitely have its place on a dairy farm. It gives predictive dairy and cow information to the herd manager to monitor cow health and milk production.

At D2D, we have talked about sensors that dairy cows wear – like collecting your data on your Apple Watch. The herd manager can look at the data on any cow and see if she is eating enough, has a fever, milk production is consistent, and if she is socializing with her friends. The data is endless. This has helped reduce sick cows by at least 15% because it lets the herd manager see and treat a cow before she is in distress. This has a tremendous impact on animal welfare.

Furthermore, dairy farmers can now put all this information together and find trends. What does the overall fertility rate look like for the herd? Is the animal feed just the right balance for the cows’ health? How well are they chewing their cud? Should the beds be changed more often? Do the cows like classical music or rock and roll when they milk? The farm can then adjust feed rations, milking schedules, and labor for optimal financial results.

A contented cow is a productive cow.

Farmers do everything to ensure their cows are comfortable, well fed and stress free.

At Oakridge Dairy, automated milking uses the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence as an on-going innovation in the milking parlor. The data can show the best time of day to milk, optimizing cow traffic which affects milk quality. The cows are automatically sorted into a moving carousel which helps reduce lameness and decreases costs.

Each cow’s udder needs to be cleaned before the milking apparatus is placed on the teats. Otherwise, bacteria would get into the milk. Generally, this is done manually by one or two farm laborers. However, this is time consuming and always fraught with human error.

Oakridge Dairy invested in two robots that go underneath the cow and prep them for milking. The fascinating part is that even though most cows are Holsteins and should have a similar teat anatomy, all cows are unique, just like us. The robot goes underneath the cow and because of AI, it remembers each teat placement of each cow.


After the milking, there is another robot that also has the same AI-type memory bank that sprays the teats, so they are clean before entering the barn.

Recycle and Reuse

If it were not for cows, a lot of food byproducts would just go to landfills.

For instance, the world eats a lot of almonds. The United States alone produced the most at 1.3 million tons of almonds. Did you know that almonds grow in a shell? What happens to those shells? As the almonds are processed, the shells get crunched up and sent to use as animal feed for dairy farms, like the hulls that are fed to the cows.

The world also drinks a lot of beer. The United States is 20th, with each of us drinking about 73 liters a year. FYI, Czech Republic is the global winner, drinking 140 liters a year. Beer comes from barley malt or other grains. After fermentation, there is something called brewers’ grains which is used for animal feed. If cows didn’t eat it, it would end up in a landfill.

Bread has been a staple in the human diet for over 30,000 years. So, it is no surprise that the left-over product of making wheat is used for animal feed. Wheat middlings are a great source of protein, fiber, phosphorus and other nutrients for animals.

Visiting Oakridge Dairy to witness reusing & recycling, AI, and biodigesters in action was an insightful experience into the future of ag, where technology helps to meet the needs of the cows and our global health.

The farm’s concern for their ‘Olympic ladies’ is self-serving because cow comfort means more milk for their customers. And as seen first-hand, these cows are clean, comfortable, and very happy, indeed.


The Gabels: From Wall Street to little Grassy Creek

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Farming is more than a business to people like Sandy and Laura Gabel. Sure, the money side of the farm is important. Very important. It takes money to run a 1,000-acre cow-calf operation anywhere, and it’s no different here in central North Carolina.

The cost of farming operations

Currently, little Grassy Creek has about 100 cows and 95 calves split among two herds. Separately, they have 17 replacement heifers (future moms, 3 bulls, and 2 or 3 feeders (cows on feed for harvesting). They all need shade from the summer sun and shelter from the winter winds, and of course careful monitoring for proper nutrition needs and overall health. Then there’s the cost of managing the artificial insemination program that produces healthy animals, as well as animals of the right type for this environment and with the ideal developmental traits.

Vet bills have to be considered, as is the cost of genetic specialists for upgrading the herd over the long term. Probiotic regimens that aid digestion and nutrient absorption also must be thought through. There’s always a need for some new machinery, or an addition to the storage barns, or improvements to the water storage and distribution system. But thinking and planning are just the first part of the job of raising cattle.

Some piece of equipment always seems to need maintenance or repair. The temporary fences that define different grazing areas have to be moved every day, and posts replaced when an ambitious cow decides to expand her horizons.

Fixed fences that define the farm boundaries need mending, and some surrounding scrubland will make good pasture when it’s cleared. Existing grasses and ground covers need to be managed constantly to preserve productivity.

Here, no-till and other soil-protecting practices are the long-held norms, not some new idea or government dictate.

The herds have to be patiently shepherded from one grazing area to the next, and the temporary wire fences (none barbed, ever) relocated. And there always seems to be a few calves that need that little something extra to thrive – special food, special medication, or just plain old special personal attention.

Then there are the other animals that seem to have accumulated since it all started here in the early 2000s. Seven horses, including a couple of rescues. Alpacas Max and Ziggy – another rescue story.

Chickens and guineas, and of course the German shepherd pup Shadow and big sister golden retriever Lynka curled up quietly in front of the iron stove in the corner.

From 5:30 a.m. till well after everyone else has gone to bed, there’s something that needs to be done. Something else that needs to be considered. Some new idea to think about, or some potential problem to head off.

Longing for longer days

“You never get everything done,” Sandy says in passing, with Laura nodding energetically in agreement.

Why would anyone give up a successful three-decade career in the high-flying world of the New York insurance industry for a life like this? What makes the bucolic world of cattle-raising in the rural mid-South more appealing than a life on Wall Street? In Laura’s case, why pass up the prominent career in education she enjoyed? Why trade all that for this?

“No, it’s a lot more than money,” says Sandy, in what soon proves to be his usual measured, quiet and reflective voice. “It’s more about finding something that gives real satisfaction.” He continues,

“Maybe satisfaction isn’t exactly the right word. This is passion.

As sincere as his answer obviously is, it seems a little hard to accept – at first. But spend a day with Sandy and Laura, and you quickly recognize they probably have nailed it exactly right. It’s not just a chance to make a living. It’s a chance to actually live.

Sandy and I ride one of his well-worn ATVs for a quick tour of the farm, and an introduction to the cows and calves that wander slowly and quietly around us, like a rising tide of brownish-red Herefords. “We should have 110 moms, come September,” he observes as we ride among this particular herd. He sounds surprisingly like a proud parent.

“I’m really a grass farmer,” Sandy jokes as we ride. “I spend so much time thinking about what grass to plant, how to get it to grow, how to make sure it will stay productive. Grass is everything for an operation like this.”

We all seem to be so very – content. The sky is bright Carolina blue, the lush grass Sandy manages so carefully is so green that Ireland would be envious. The air is rich with the smell of nature. “You see the beauty of this every day, everywhere,” Sandy says in passing, almost under his breath. “In the animals. In the land. In everything.” On this day at least, God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

“How can anyone not be moved by this – at least a little?” Sandy just smiles, the corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the visitor’s revelation of what he discovered long ago. “The word you’re looking for is serenity,” he says. And he is absolutely right.

Creating new roots

The die for this special kind of life probably was cast very early in life. Sandy’s father was another successful businessman who grew up on a farm outside New York – not a play farm but a real working farm, with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more.

Even as Sandy’s father toiled at his career in the Big Apple, he also enjoyed the farm life on his own special North Carolina retreat, not all that far from where we sit today. Farming is in this family’s genes.

Graduating from nearby Duke University also probably played a role in Sandy’s decision-making. The growing Raleigh metropolitan area long ago swallowed up the old family farm that gave the family so much satisfaction. But proceeds from its sale provided the seeds for little Grassy Creek Farm between the state capital and the Virginia border. Initially, the land needed a lot of patient work to restore its productivity, “and to clear out a hundred years of accumulated garbage,” Sandy remembers.

The farm has grown steadily over the years, in size and sophistication, and so has the satisfaction that it provides. So what’s the secret, the magic formula for making the demanding world of cattle raising so satisfying?

“Our goal isn’t to maximize profits,” Sandy says over a cup of hot tea after our farm tour. “We probably could make more money selling specialized beef products to some of the local markets. I might even make more money planting some pastureland to specialty hays for the horse-feed market. But that’s not our big objective.”

The obvious follow-up question: what is?

“To leave something for the future…a sustainable farm for the future… something important… something worthwhile.” Sandy and Laura say the same things, almost in unison.

We’re trying to build up an operation for our kids and future generations, they explain. We want to leave behind a farm that is built around doing the right thing in every aspect of our operation. In how we treat the cows. How we protect the land and the water. In finding better ways to produce beef, and do it in a way that works best for all of us, from the animal to the farmer to the consumer. In making farming an appealing way of doing something important in the world and finding joy in doing it.

“People today simply don’t understand our agricultural system,” Sandy says. “They take it for granted. They need to see how modern farming is important to all of us, and the whole world around us. To our common future.”

Laura agrees completely. “I think it’s fun to have people come out to the farm and just walk around and look at what goes on here,” she says.

“Giving folks a chance to ask questions gives children – and adults, too, for that matter – is the best way I can think of to teach them about what we do.”

On-site visits may be the best way to educate people, but it’s far from the only way.

“I’ve started posting a few short videos on our farm Facebook page that show some of the tasks that go on around here,” she adds. “There’s one with Sandy baling round bales, and there’s one with Sandy feeding the replacement heifers.

You can hear him telling them ‘good morning’ which is something he always does – and that’s one reason why our herd is so settled and docile. Sandy’s out there every day among them, and it makes a difference.”

When Sandy and Laura say things like that, it doesn’t sound idealistic, and certainly not corny. These are people who don’t just say things like “do the right thing” and “leave something lasting for everyone.” They mean it. They live it.

And after a too-short day with them, I see that they are right. And I know I should want to, too.

Serving Up Sustainability at Fast Food Restaurants

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According to the CDC, 36% of Americans eat fast food daily. That’s almost 90 million people going to a fast-food restaurant every single day. And most have three items: chicken/hamburger/salad, a drink, and fries.

That’s well over 286 million individual wrappings, cups, straws, and clamshells thrown away day after day.

The 325,000 total fast-food locations across the U.S. present a massive opportunity to curb waste and boost sustainability efforts based on the sheer scale of fast-food chains. And the opportunity extends far deeper when you consider the effects these companies have on their supply chains to practice these efforts.

Whether it is Starbucks testing out an entirely plant-based menu, McDonald’s trialing a plastic-free concept store, Subway changing the companies they source their ingredients from, KFC pledging that all consumer-facing plastic packaging will be recoverable by 2025, or Taco Bell committing to make all of its packaging compostable and recyclable, each of these businesses is leading the way in their industry’s sustainability efforts.

These initiatives are honorable and necessary to combat our growing environmental crisis, but we are left with some questions:

  • Will the consumer be willing to pay more for sustainability?
  • What practices actually work to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease waste and pollution?
  • Furthermore, which third-party companies regulate these “green” claims?  Or are they internally regulated? If so, do we trust that internal oversight?

But first…will we pay more for less waste? 

It is a mixed bag. A Nielsen study from October 2015 showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to shell out more money for sustainable goods. Of those global consumers, millennials rank the highest in support of sustainability and willingness to pay with an overwhelming 73% on board.

A 2018 analysis from Statista supports this claim, detailing which age groups are willing to pay more, and even went so far as to break out how much more they are willing to pay.

A recent survey by GreenPrint found that nearly 64% of consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, but almost 75% of them struggle with how to identify these products.

How do they know what they are getting is more sustainable? A challenge many fast-food companies are looking to solve.

But do these polls convert to actual shopping behaviors? The brand giant, Unilever, found that while about 4 out of 5 people say they are inclined to buy from environmentally-friendly companies, consumers don’t actually follow through with their wallets.

Other studies show a consistent gap between purchase intentions and behaviors. Despite polling about environmental concerns and reported positive attitudes of consumers towards green products, it is estimated still that only about 25% of those attitudes translate into spending. Consumer cognitive dissonance will always be a challenge with data gathering and polling biases.

The question is who bears the cost of innovation in sustainable packaging until enough volume is achieved to be competitive with existing packaging? Is it the producer? The fast-food restaurants? The consumer? What is the inelastic price point where the consumer just won’t pay more for sustainable food? Would consumers pay 10 cents more per burger at McDonald’s to help share the cost of sustainability? For instance, McDonald’s sells 2.36 billion burgers every year. That would bring an additional $236 million in “sustainability” sales.

What methods of “green” packaging really make a difference in the fast-food world?

The Dogwood Alliance recently detailed a best-practices roadmap for “greening” fast-food packaging. It said that environmental stakeholders must make sustainability a corporate priority and this starts from the ground up. Foundational steps include embracing corporate leadership on sustainability, using a full life-cycle supply-chain approach, reducing overall packaging, and increasing efficiency.

As you drill down past the foundational level, the next tier requires that fast-food companies increase their usage of recycled and/or biodegradable fibers, work to eliminate paper originating from controversial forestry practices, increase in-store recycling and recovery, eliminate toxic inks and labels, and change the composition, weight, and size of its packaging.

Fast-food companies have taken note and have mirrored sustainability efforts after these key principles, rather than arbitrarily creating a set of their own green goals.

But here I am, an educated consumer left with one overwhelming question in my head…

How in the world am I going to figure out if the fast-food companies I choose to enjoy actually follow these standards?

Fear not: there’s a website that will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Green Restaurant Association tracks businesses and measures food companies based on their environmental footprint, ethical workplace practices, animal welfare commitments, product safety, and marketing strategies to children.

Who is regulating these green initiatives?

Many small brands turn to organizations like Climate Neutral, Foundation Myclimate, and Global Ecolabelling Network for their stamp of approval.

However, not all companies operate or seek to be wholly verified by a third party, especially the big guys. McDonald’s and PepsiCo, for example (the latter owns KFC and Taco Bell), have crafted internal policies to address green initiatives and environmental efforts.

These companies have made similar statements, claiming to work towards the conservation of natural resources, recycling, pollution control, and the pursuit of alternative oils that can be repurposed. While these green plans appear robust and thoughtful, is internal governance enough for consumers to trust that these initiatives really are being put in place?

Good governance is critical to managing our impact on the world. Our governance structures help us to prioritize ESG issues effectively and guide our actions and performance across issues. Engagement with our Board of Directors, cross-functional leadership teams and working groups, and Franchisees and suppliers ensures we have robust governance mechanisms in place to manage these issues and can deliver long-term value for stakeholders.

— excerpt from McDonald’s Purpose and Impact statement

While internal governance is critical, it is not the only means of approvals and certifications that big chains use to provide consumer trust and verification. They may not work with regulatory bodies that can put a stamp on an entire organization. But most of them do, in fact, work with a rigorous group of organizations at an ingredient level to ensure they are meeting and/or exceeding the requirements for their sustainability goals.

What about sustainable food ingredients? 

The influence fast-food restaurants have on overall sustainability is tremendous. Holding their suppliers accountable has far-reaching benefits as many of their producers also sell to grocery store chains. Fast food companies are now answering questions. Where does the meat come from? Is it grown humanely? Is chocolate or coffee grown with fair labor practices? How do we know?

We spoke with Christy Johnson, former Vice President at Papa John’s International Inc., who shared some insights as to how they make “better ingredients, better pizza.” Johnson explained that while there is no overarching regulatory body, they partner with organizations such as the Whole Wheat Council to ensure that their crust is 90% whole grain, and with the Clean Label Project for their toppings so they comply with their regulations. Papa John’s even went so far as to remove 14 ingredients back in 2016 that were not up to the standards of these partners.

While this might mean Papa John’s spends more than $100 million each year to ensure that they are implementing and maintaining these clean label changes, it also offers an avenue of trust for the consumer.

“Papa John’s attempts to always be fully transparent—sharing data and information with the consumer about how and where ingredients are sourced, as well as the mechanisms for ensuring the best quality is imperative for consumer trust.”

– Christy Johnson, Former Vice President at Papa John’s

How to present meaningful data that’s impactful for the consumer

Nicolas Brosens, Strategic Sourcing Officer at McDonald’s, turned the idea of internal regulation on its head, explaining that it is less about the consumer-facing regulatory stamps and data than it is about true transparency and traceability initiatives. McDonald’s is currently working to create a network on their website where consumers can eventually type in an ingredient or menu item and see where it came from, how it is treated, what the environmental impact is, and so on, as verified by their farming partners, processors, etc.

McDonald’s has long been a leader in the sustainability space, and it continues to be at the forefront of sourcing, packaging, and general renewables. As it turns out, McDonald’s, and most large fast-food companies, have a slew of data points on various sustainable measures, sourcing information, green analytics, and more. It is not a matter of having the data; it is a matter of figuring out how to present that data in a meaningful and impactful way to the consumer.

As in the case of Papa John’s, many certifications are held at an ingredient level. McDonald’s shares a similar model, with ethical sourcing as a critical part of their overall sustainability strategy. They have partnered with organizations like RSPCA, FARM, Forest Stewardship Council, PEFCTM, Conservation International, RSPO, ProTerra, RTRS, GRSB, AIM-Progress, and others to help them regulate and monitor the traceability of all ingredients, including ingredients in their livestock feed products.

Coffee is another industry where certification comes into play with regulation. Brosens stated that all coffee and coffee beans in the EU are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, while other regional McDonald’s work with the Fair Trade Organization — deforestation being a massive component of their green strategy.

While the efforts being made by many fast-food chains are progressive and impactful, this does not mean that all fast-food chains are as committed to going green. It is also important to note that many of these companies are in the inception stage and have set goals of five, ten, fifteen years from now till the next impact measure.

Here is a list of a few companies and their environmental strategies and/or sustainability reports so you can make an informed decision on where your next drive-thru order will come from!

                        McDonald’s  |  Papa Johns  |  Taco Bell  |  Panera                                                                           Starbucks  |  KFC  |  Chick-fil-A                                                 

Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Lucy recently spoke at a Boy Scouts of America event hosting community business leaders and politicians in Pennsylvania. She chose to speak about rural America’s potential to pave the way for the future of agricultural innovations.

Below is her speech.

Thank you for the introduction, Jeff Homer, President of Grovedale Winery. And thank you to the Andaste District Scouts for having me here tonight to speak to all of you about my favorite subjects: agriculture, food, and the technologies that lead us.

Even though my experience as a Girl Scout was very brief, the Boy Scouts are near and dear to my heart because my husband is an Eagle Scout and has remained involved with the Scouts for years. In fact, the Scouts are one of the reasons we are married.

When he asked my father to marry me, surprised for sure as we had only been dating a couple of months, he said no. But then, when my parents discovered that Mark was an Eagle Scout, they embraced him warmly.

So, my advice to you is to forget match.com – just become an Eagle Scout and make sure your future wife’s family knows it. You see, being a Scout – especially an Eagle Scout – still means something in this world. It signaled to my parents more than anything that Mark would be a good husband and father.

The Scouts are about character. Your values: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent –set you apart from many in our country. You cannot be a leader with virtue. What the scouts teach are the virtues needed for children to grow into good citizens.

I love how these values coincide with the American farmer. Every day we can thank a farmer for what is on our plate. America has one of the most affordable, clean, safe, and efficient food systems in the world. This is accomplished by hard-working people who have a strong purpose to bring food to your table.

I think a lot about agriculture, science, and food…

My interest in food really solidified when I had children. Two of them, including myself, have a blood disorder. To keep our immune systems strong, our pediatrician told me to make sure we ate well. What did that mean? I thought that it simply meant organic. But as I investigated further, I began to understand that there are many ways to bring healthy, safe, clean food to the dinner table.

The grocery store was – and still is – telling me that hormones are terrible in milk (all cows have hormones), GMOs are frankenfood , glyphosate – the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup – is poisoning our food, gluten is causing everything from allergies to back pain, and chickens raised indoors, cattle at the feedlot, and dairy cows in the milking parlor are experiencing animal welfare issues.

So other than starve to death – what was I supposed to do?

I started visiting farms, feedlots, dairy farms, and saw that none of this was true. Sure, some farmers and farms are better than others, but this dichotomy made me uncomfortable, and I wanted the truth to be told That’s why I started my blog, Dirt to Dinner. Our mission is to inspire curiosity, knowledge, and action about our food from the farmer’s field to the dinner table, using science as our guide.

I recently had the chance to think about agriculture from a unique perspective…the seat of my motorcycle. My husband, one of our sons, and I love to ride through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside on our bikes.

As the wind was whipping by me and the rows of corn and dairy farms faded into a blur – I started thinking about how important our farmers are who grow our corn, meat, dairy, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables to feed the 7.71 billion of us on Earth. In less than four years, that number will jump to over 8 billion. This global increase of 400 million more people is more than the population in our entire country – in less than four years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that we need 60% more food to feed the extra two billion people by 2050. It sounds like a long way away. But for those of you who are teenagers, you’ll be in your 50s. You are the ones that will shape the world you inherit.

How are you going to make sure the world is what you want it to be?

Will the farmer growing the corn I whizzed by have fresh water? Will he, or she, create and maintain healthy soil? Will we be eating meat from animals or foods made in a lab? And if it is grown in a lab, what does that mean for rural America and the farming communities that sustain it? At D2D we talk a lot about technology and how that is shaping our food system. It is the future. And I wonder if we are all prepared?

Logically, you might think that to produce more food, we need more land to farm. The good news? We can do this on existing agricultural land because of innovations in agricultural technology. And, personally, I love companies that solve problems and deliver solutions.

In the ’90s, someone told me that I would have my own personal phone number that would be carried around with me. I thought, ‘What is wrong with our house phone?’ Look at what sticks in our back pocket now. It is not just our phone number: it is movies, games, the internet of things. That is in my adult lifetime. Think of agriculture as making the same leaps.

Examining the challenges of sustainability

Sustainability means that our generation leaves your generation with clean water, healthy soil, no child labor, fair labor practices, animal welfare, enough water, clean air…the list is endless. Basically growing food with Scout values – meaning – Do the right thing.

And the first place to start answering that question is by starting at our feet. The next time you’re outside around dirt – pick up a small handful – and take a good look. Did you know that you would be looking at more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on Earth today? A small handful of soil has more diversity than all the frogs, plants, monkeys, birds, panthers, miniature elephants, and other billions of species in the vast, vast Amazon Rainforest.

Stop. Think about that for a minute…just in a handful of soil. All these fungi, insects, bacteria, and algae happily coexist in the soil keep us alive by growing our food. They control pathogens, reduce plant disease outbreaks, give plants nutrients, keep them resilient, give them energy to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and finally are a source of human medicine.

Here’s a great example of a very well-educated farmer who makes the most of his soil. Last summer we rode our motorcycles down to Trout Run to see Dave Albert’s farm, Misty Mountain.

Dave is the sixth generation of his family to farm the land. His ancestor and his wife immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany. After they got acclimated to their new country, they walked 200 miles to Trout Run pushing a wheelbarrow with their belongings.

Today Dave has a successful beef operation growing corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola to feed their cattle, sheep, and pastured poultry. How?

Dave became a soil expert reading about regenerative ag and is applying that to his farm today. He knows his soil is healthy because he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides. He understands the power of the mighty microbes.

There’s more than one way

Big multinational companies, like Bayer and Mosaic, and smaller start-ups, like MyLand and AgBiome, are also changing the way we look and use soil.

Each farm has its own microalgae in the soil – just like we all have our own gut microbiome. Mine is different from yours and yours is different from your siblings. This company looks at which algae is essential to that specific farm. They then grow those algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells – and sprays it back onto the soil using the farm’s irrigation system. in a tractor-trailer housed on the farm. The farm then uses less fertilizer, less water and increases their yield and thus their revenue.

Another company looks at all the soil microbes that kill insects, fungus, and weeds. They sequence the DNA, grow them in a lab, and take them out to spray on the field to have healthy crops – without pesticides and herbicides. Healthy soil, healthy planet.

These companies are leading agriculture to sustainability while making the difference between profitability and bankruptcy for family farms.

Animals can benefit, too…

It is not just soil that has excellent new technologies with sustainability. Animal welfare – taking care of our animals whether they are in a feedlot getting fat for our dinner plates, giving us milk to drink, ice cream, and mozzarella cheese, or chickens giving us eggs or chicken salad sandwiches is the right thing to do.

How do we keep track of all these animals? If one is not feeling well, they might tell you by a droopy head, not eating, not socializing. But when a farmer has hundreds of cattle on the range or in the dairy barn – it is hard to tell how each one is feeling. And often when they are sick, it is too late and you have to call the vet.

Today, it is not going a problem to keep track of them. Anyone wearing an Apple Watch or Fitbit?

Great – so is the cow.

Just like our watches – the cow version of fit bit is a necklace they wear. Where they are (important on the range), whether they are socializing, their body temperature, how much they are eating, and if they are a dairy cow, how much milk they are producing. One company does facial recognition for dairy cows instead of a necklace – because necklaces fall off.

These technologies relay information to sensors on gates and after leaving the milking parlor, if a cow is deemed to have a problem, she is automatically sorted into a ‘sick pen’. The herd manager immediately receives a text on his phone and goes to attend to the cow so she can be taken care of before she gets so sick that she needs antibiotics. Or if it is cattle on the range, the herd manager also receives this information on his phone. He, or she, can even move the cattle from pasture to pasture from sensors on the gates.

This unique technology is not only a more humane approach; it enhances the margin for the farmer by keeping their animals healthy which then makes the farmer more competitive in the market.

Alt meat’s place in the global food system

Of course, no conversation about cows would be complete without including alternative meats.

The world is also full of carnivores. According to Research and Markets, alternative meat consumption, mostly alt-poultry, beef, and pork, is projected to have a compounded annual growth rate of 7.4% through 2025. Did you know Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America will drive 83% of this growth?

As more and more people come out of poverty thanks to the free market, they can afford and consume more meat. Once people begin making more than $5,000 a year – yes, a year – they start incorporating protein in their diets.

Right now, the world eats about 300 million metric tons of meat a year. That doesn’t include sheep and goats. If you put all that meat in a rail-cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

I am so curious as to what will happen with the future of meat. Will this industry be entirely disrupted? It just might. There are four different ways to get meat.

How many of you have had the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger? These are burgers made out of pea protein, potato protein, water, coconut or canola oil, and several other ingredients. They are not necessarily healthier or cheaper than a lean beef burger but they have created a lot of excitement. It is a great ‘meat’ option for vegans and vegetarians. And both CEOs are committed to improving the technology.

The other non-meat option is grown in a lab. It is called cell-based meat. For instance, Upside Foods, takes cells from a particular part of a cow, duck, and chicken and grows them in a lab to make flank steak, duck breast, or chicken thighs. We went to visit them in San Francisco. It was an impressive lab for sure. But this technology is challenging as you need science technicians to literally babysit the cells, cull out the bad ones, and feed the good ones so they can grow into a meal.

The cell-based meat was initially about $5,000 a hamburger. So, you haven’t seen it on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

Not yet…

Finally, there is synthetic biology. This is the future. Many of you are familiar with the 0s and 1s used for computer programming. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four letters instead: A, C, T, G.

They make up our DNA – and all DNA of every single living organism. Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus.

Synthetic biology can change the genetic code within an organism and make it do something it might not do otherwise. Or, put another way, we can create food, medicine, lumber, clothing in entirely unconventional and different ways.

Ginkgo Bioworks can make vegan ice cream by programing and fermenting yeast to create the perfect milk protein. Ecovative Design ‘grows materials’ with mycelium – the root structure of a mushroom to grow meat that tastes like crab cakes or bacon.

We need all tools in our toolbelts to thrive

As I said before there are four ways to make meat. Don’t buy into ‘canceling’ out an entire industry. We can’t say, “Oh it’s better for the earth if we just make our food in a lab” and then wipe out traditional ways of raising meat. Because that does more than remove cows and chickens from our diets – it removes much of rural America’s way of life. Also, we will need all ways to feed a growing population who need protein in their diets.

Food can unite people – let’s not let it divide people. My point here is we do not need a protein war like we have a political and culture war between our very own shores.

The technologies I have just discussed are all successful – today. But they were generated on the backs of many, many failures. Rumor has it Edison tried 1000 times for the lightbulb. Everyone who has had success has failed. I certainly have.

Being a leader means stepping out and just get started.

I was worried about starting D2D. Take a risk my uncle said! If it doesn’t work – then shut it down. So far – so good. We are trying to take a leadership role by encouraging and embracing new and safe technologies that can increase our yield and grow our food in the most sustainable and healthy way.

Being a leader means taking the values you cherish as a scout and making a difference in your community – your world.

One of my favorite D2D stories is about Farm Link. During COVID, a college-aged boy was sitting around at his kitchen table – maybe a bit bored. His mother said, go out and do something – make a difference. So he and three of his friends linked the food waste problem in our country with food banks. Food waste is a serious issue: if you were to grow a garden the size of a football field, take all the food from the 40-yard line to the goal post – and throw it away. That is how much food is wasted every day.

The goal of Farm Link is simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food. This was especially poignant during Covid.

The time is now

Here is where you can come in. One of the worries for our country is the decline of income in rural American. I see the problems of rural America when I fly my Super Cub over the countryside. (I also love to fly airplanes). Even from 500 feet over the ground, you can tell that some farms are thriving, and some are struggling or non-existent with junk in the front yard.

Much of our manufacturing has moved to China. A bigger worry is that we have put cheap pharmaceuticals, furniture, clothes, and almost everything we buy ahead of American jobs. But the one thing we have not exported is our food.

We grow enough food to food 350 million people plus many in the rest of the world. But we can’t if we don’t accept technology and try new things. America exports our corn, soybeans, meat, fruits, and vegetables.

How can you link the need for income growth in rural America with our food security? Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas North Carolina are all states that are attracting businesses. Why not Pennsylvania? Why not change the tax and regulatory code in the county where you live to bring in new types of business thus creating jobs and income?

Why not grow fish in the middle of our state? The oceans are certainly getting overfished. You really don’t know whether you are eating cod or grouper? Is your fish really Chilean sea bass or something grown in China? Honestly, we have no idea. How about home-grown fish in rural America? It is a unique idea for sure, but why not grow salmon, shrimp, tilapia all indoors in a clean safe environment and truck them fresh to the grocery store?

A high percentage of Americans are obese, have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Much of that can be changed with our diets. Just eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But access to affordable produce is tough. It is cheaper to eat a box of macaroni and cheese with a hamburger than eating your required fruit and vegetable servings. So how to make it easier, more affordable, and more accessible? What about vertical farming? Nutritious fresh produce delivered that is grown hydroponically right to the market is wonderful – especially in the wintertime. This is a new and expanding industry that grows lettuce and other produce year-round?

We can reinvigorate rural America – places where traditional manufacturing and industry have abandoned our towns and counties – but we can only do this by being open to new and innovative ways of doing old things…— it starts not with governments or industries but us – people just like you…

It will take pioneers – friendly and courteous and educated and helping one another along the way…you can be today’s pioneers. You don’t have to be Elon Musk or Richard Branson.

Millions of Americans have gone before you and done it. They were not all wealthy. Most had no connections and had left behind everything they knew – think of Dave Albert’s ancestors. Scouts, you can create your own legacy of making the world a better place. That is the definition of a good life and what all people of character strive for.

Thank you all for your time tonight.

Meeting Demand: A New Type of Salmon

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Innovation and creative thinking in the protein industry is ever-evolving. You may have read some of our posts on the perils of overfishing our oceans and rivers. So when I heard about the genetically-modified AquAdvantage salmon that addresses sustainability issues as well as the potential to bring income to rural America, I was immediately curious. Of course, I wondered whether it was regulated and what the testing looked like. So I dug deeper and learned a lot about how this fish is grown.

AquAdvantage – What is it?

AquAdvantage Salmon is the first genetically-modified salmon approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada. AquaBounty, the company behind AquAdvantage, has its unlikely farm in Indiana. Yes – the Midwest can grow salmon!

This fish is more sustainable and unique because it can grow to maturity in just 18 months, compared to 36 months for a traditionally farmed salmon. Both take significantly less time than their wild cousins, which can take 7 years.

Farmed and wild Atlantic salmon stop growing during the winter and when they are environmentally stressed. Wild salmon take so long to reach maturity because they are foraging for food, avoiding predators, and dealing with tough environmental conditions. Farmed salmon also have a tough time growing because, even though they are swimming in enclosed sea nets, they are still exposed to diseases, parasites, and sometimes water that is too warm.

30 years ago, the AquaBounty salmon was genetically modified to help survive their early, most vulnerable stages of growth. Just like a labradoodle dog — a cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle — an AquAdvantage salmon is a combination of the Atlantic salmon, the Chinook salmon’s growth gene, and a gene promoter from an ocean pout. Not the most attractive fish in the ocean, the major benefit of the ocean pout is that their ‘promoters’ turn on the Chinook growth gene to make the fish grow all the time, as opposed to seasonal growth with the Atlantic salmon’s promoters. And if an ocean pout was on the menu, I would certainly try one, growth promoter and all.

What does the FDA say?

The FDA approved the AquAdvantage salmon as “safe and effective” under the new animal drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in November 2015.

The FDA studied this fish for over 25 years. The first 10 years were setting up the prenotification process before filing for approval. For the next 15 years, they wanted to prove three things: Is it safe for the fish? Is it safe for humans? Is it safe for the environment? The answer to all three was yes.

Finally, after all these years of research development and regulatory evaluation, the first fish is expected to be harvested in December 2020 at AquaBounty’s farm in Indiana.

There is no mystery involved here. You will know when you are eating an AquaBounty fish when you buy your fish at a market or grocery store. The USDA National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act requires ‘mandatory standards for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered’. However, restaurants are not under an obligation to highlight genetically modified salmon on their menu.

Less Feed – Better Conversion Rate

One of the most remarkable attributes of this breed is that, despite its continual growth, it requires less daily food. The on-farm results with AquAdvantage salmon have confirmed the scientific studies and demonstrated that it is possible to produce one pound of fish with less than one pound of feed. This is compared to most farmed Atlantic salmon which take one pound of fish feed to grow one pound of fish.

Grown without antibiotics in Indoor Farms

All of these fish are – and will be – grown in highly-regulated fish farms. If you ever had a fish tank, this is not the same thing. Biofiltration units keep the water clean, fresh, and provide great conditions where this salmon can thrive. Because of the clean environment, the fish do not get sick or acquire sea lice, so they are always grown without antibiotics.

The tanks are completely contained without the possibility of a fish escaping into the wild. Yet they are big enough for the fish to jump and swim in schools – allowing them to be their natural selves.  They do not have to forage for food as they are fed just enough for them to grow and not too much to stimulate excessive waste.

AquaBounty’s indoor grow-out tanks prevent escapement and eliminate parasites that lead to disease.

Stimulating Economic Growth in Rural America

So much of rural America has lost the benefits of agriculture. Bringing fish farms to parts of America is a way to boost economic growth, especially in the mountainous areas such as West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. It is an opportunity to bring jobs and income to areas that have lost their income in part due to bankruptcies in the farming sector, many in the dairy industry.

Riding my motorcycle around some of the beautiful Pennsylvania northern counties, all I see are fallow farms and beautiful, stately barns – falling apart.

AquaBounty has found that Indiana, where the company has its current U.S. farm, and other mid-west locations, are great examples of states committed to AgriTech.

AquaBounty actively works with local and state governments and agencies that are committed to AgriTech. They believe this is the future of agriculture as well as their state’s economic and employment growth.

AquaBounty also closely monitors the USDA Rural Economic Development Program as part of the site selection process.

Why do we need AquAdvantage?

In 2018, Atlantic salmon, second to shrimp, was the most valued farmed fish in the world. The upward projections continue and is expected to grow to 4 million tons by just 2023, from about 3.5 million tons in 2019. The U.S. imports about 400,000 tons of salmon every year. About 70% come from farms – mostly in Norway, Chile, Scotland, and Canada.

Salmon is particularly healthy — it is rich in minerals, micronutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and many vitamins. Not only is salmon good for you, but it is easy to cook for dinner, throw together in a salad, or even have as sushi. More and more consumers are enjoying the health, taste, and ease of cooking it at home.

However, we cannot catch them all with a fishing pole or a fishing boat or we will not have any left.

Remember the Atlantic Cod off the coast of Maine? As a D2D reader, you may have read about the sustainable importance of farmed fish versus wild-caught.

As the oceans become over-fished, there are many benefits to eating fish grown from responsibly managed fish farms and ocean fisheries.

With diligent oversight, these operations help meet demand while natural aquatic habitats improve from current overfished conditions.

What do consumers say about GMO fish?

Concerned about whether consumers would embrace a genetically engineered fish, the AquaBounty management team conducted extensive research to determine their reaction. Here are key points from Quantitative Research Executive Summary:

  • 53% of consumers’ initial impressions of the term GMO/GE are neutral to positive – many are conflicted
  • Respondents are neutral about purchasing products they regularly buy if labeled GMO/GE.
  • Almost three-quarters rank level of trust for government agencies to provide oversight/guidelines as Neutral to Trust Very Much
  • Top-ranked attributes for AquAdvantage Salmon: Chemical free, Nutritious, Antibiotic Free Consistent Access to Fresh Fish, Affordability, FDA Approved

What do NGOs and Political Figures say about a GMO Fish?

When the news came out, even our local fish market had loud ‘NO GMO SALMON HERE’ signs posted everywhere. Of course, it was not sold ‘here’ because the salmon was a couple of years away from being available….

Concern: Anti-GMO, NGOs, and other groups filed a legal challenge in March 2016 in the San Francisco federal court. The first challenge was whether the FDA’s animal drug authority could oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. The second claim said that the FDA violated core environmental laws in the event these fish escaped into the wild.

Response: Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco affirmed that the FDA had the authority to oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. For the second claim, while he understood that the FDA had thoroughly analyzed the exceptionally low probability of escape, they did not address the consequences if this breed of salmon were to establish a persistent population in the wild. Judge Chhabria ruled that AquaBounty can continue its operations in Prince Edward Island, Canada and Indiana. Nor did the Judge prevent AquaBounty from harvesting in December 2020.

AquAdvantage salmon cannot make the leap from a land-based indoor tank to the wild. All these facilities have tightly-closed septic and water systems to prevent eggs or fish from escaping.

In addition, all the fish will be sterile females and, unlike the protogynous sea bass, a female salmon cannot turn into a productive male, thus procreating with wild salmon – or any other fish for that matter. Once a salmon is sterile – it is sterile.

Other concerns such as those from The Consumer’s Union are worth mentioning as their issues are similar to GMOs overall.

Concern: More and more children are getting allergic reactions to different types of foods, like nuts and eggs. Since these salmon are GMOs, they must contribute to children’s allergies.  They are also an advocate of labeling.

Response: As we have mentioned in previous posts regarding GMOs, all GMOs are tested for allergies…in fact, every single allergy known to humans. AquAdvantage fish are no exception. It is also worth noting that the gene brought into the salmon is a growth promoter. There are no known allergies to naturally occurring growth hormones.

Response:  These GMOs are required to be labeled if they are sold at the fish market or grocery store. However, not at a restaurant.

Concern: GM Watch says that these hormones can cause cancer and the fish could have different protein levels. The concern is that the additional hormones create a hormone called IGF-1 that increases insulin and causes cancer.

Response: When you eat an AquAdvantage salmon, the growth gene from the Chinook salmon and the growth promoter from the ocean pout could not affect you or change your genes.  It is the same as eating any type of seafood. They all have growth hormones – otherwise, they would not grow!

The IGF-1 hormone is necessary for all vertebrae and mammals to mature. While the ocean pout hormone is different than the salmon hormone, this hormone does not produce more insulin in the human body. In truth, the IGF-1 hormone is present in humans already and a too low level might cause diabetes and other health issues.

Concern: This fish has a higher ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, compared to other salmon that have more omega 3s.

Response: A different growth hormone does not affect the nutritional quality of this salmon. Also, most farmed fish are fed with by-catch. In this case, they are working with an algae product that produces the same fatty acid profile as fish.

Epicor: Strengthening our Immune Response


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As you may know, we do not normally write about supplements, let alone tout a specific product. As we enter the winter season, we want to be sure to enjoy all the fun activities. Here is a product that the D2D team, our friends and families, and many of us have been successfully taking over the past few years to boost our immunity.

EpiCor, a supplement derived from yeast, is gaining momentum in the marketplace for its immune function benefits. Clinical trials show that taking EpiCor, a yeast-based supplement, can strengthen your immune system and support a healthy gut.

EpiCor has undergone eight human clinical trials, all of which have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and have used a standard dose of 500 mg per day.

Six of the eight trials conform to the “gold standard” of clinical design in that they were randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials.

Results show that EpiCor strengthens the immune system while it balances immune response.

What is Epicor?

Epicor is a postbiotic supplement made from fermented brewer’s yeast. This fermentation process creates metabolites, which include proteins, polyphenols, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polysaccharides, and fiber.

EpiCor’s history began with Diamond V, an animal nutrition company located in Iowa. Embria Health Sciences, owned by Diamond V Mills, discovered the health benefits of EpiCor back in 1998 when farmers noticed increased animal health once they switched their animal feed to Diamond V’s products as part of their feed rations.

Simultaneously, the Diamond V employees manufacturing the yeast-based products also experienced improved health, simply from exposure. In fact, the employees’ health improved so much that their corporate health insurance company contacted management to make sure that they hadn’t switched health care providers because there were little to no healthcare claims.

Once this was brought to their attention, Diamond V management conducted a pilot study comparing workers exposed to the yeast and those who were not. Those exposed to the yeast had 65% more IgAs, antibody proteins that fight off antigens, in their saliva!

Sounds impressive, but what are IgAs, exactly?

This chart shows the difference in IgAs between the workers exposed to the fermented yeast while making the feed formulation and those working in the offices. Source: EpiCor.

IgA and Immune System Response

Let’s say you are at the grocery store, happily stopping your cart in the aisle to say hello to your neighbor. She smiles, her face mask slips, and then…. ACHOO! You have just been sneezed on. Now, what do you do? Of course, being polite, you find a way to gracefully end the conversation, all while frantically wondering if she is sick or was it just a sneeze.

Your body knows exactly what to do to protect you! We don’t think about it but, with every breath, we move large volumes of air through our nose and mouth. It is no surprise that we have millions of microbes (viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens) constantly entering our bodies. While no one likes to have a lot of mucus floating around in our head, the right amount of mucosal fluid serves as a ‘liquid wall’ between these outside invaders and your epithelial tissue, the protective lining inside our organs and glands.

Mucus lines our nose, trachea, lungs, esophagus, and intestines and serves as the first layer of defense to keep those pathogens out of our interior environment. As a point of interest, the entire mucosa in our body is about 400 square meters – about two times the size of a tennis court!

Floating through your tears, saliva, sweat, lungs, and gastrointestinal passages are antibodies called IgA (secretory immunoglobulin A) that help prevent the viruses from entering a host cell.

When a virus enters the host cell, it sits on the cell membrane, unlocks a cell door, and drops in its own RNA to infect it. Once the cell is infected, it rapidly makes at least tens of thousands of infected copies. In turn, each one of those cells makes tens of thousands of copies, and so on, and so on. This is why colds and flu can come on so quickly and spread so rapidly through our bodies.

You basically want a lot of IgAs. EpiCor may help increase our IgAs, thus giving us a stronger defense to protect our cells from getting infected with virus-causing colds, flus, and other sicknesses entering our airways.

Antibodies 101

To help you understand antibodies, here’s a brief tutorial on how we are protected against millions of pathogens we encounter daily. Antibodies like IgA are a critical line of defense throughout your body. We have five different types: IgA, IgE, IgG, IgM, and IgD. Each of them has a distinct function and location, but all are made by our millions of B lymphocyte white blood cells.

Like law enforcement protecting our neighborhoods, our B lymphocyte white blood cells constantly patrol our blood and lymph nodes for destructive pathogens trying to enter a cell. But just as law enforcement would have one strategy for a bank robber and another for a drug dealer, B cells send out a different antibody depending on the toxin or pathogen. For example, an antibody that kills a cold virus is different from one that kills a staph infection.

B cells are incredibly adaptable. If our body needs more of a certain type of antibody to fight a specific virus, the B cell can change the genetic structure of an antibody and turn it into what is needed. Let’s say the body has received an onslaught of a cold virus. The B cell that recognizes a cold’s antigens will start producing more antibodies. Additionally, if the body’s defense needs more IgAs, the B cell can change an IgM antibody into an IgA antibody.

Do you know why you become immune to a disease after you have contracted it or received a vaccine? B cells have memory. If they see a familiar pathogen, they will send out antibodies to kill it. Even if they encounter a similar but not exact pathogen, they will make antibodies to kill that, too.

EpiCor and Cell Invasions

What happens if a virus enters the cells and begins to replicate?  What does your body do then?

Enter the T cell. Produced in the bone marrow and maturing in the thymus, one of their many functions is to attack a cell once it has been compromised by a pathogen. One subset of T cells are NK cells (Natural Killer cells), which comprise about 20% of our white blood cells and can react to a pathogen within hours. They are like sharks, constantly patrolling the body, looking for infected or cancerous cells, and then destroying them.

The Effect of EpiCor on Natural Kill Cell Activation. Source: EpiCor.

In vitro data suggests EpiCor can help activate your Natural Killer Cells. This is the second layer of added protection if the virus escaped the antibodies created by the B cells.

EpiCor and Allergies

There are times when our immune system overreacts, which can lead to chronic inflammation. Allergies are caused by an overreaction to an allergen, such as pollen or animal hair. An increase in the immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody causes sneezing, itchy eyes, and inflammation.

EpiCor may help keep the IgEs in balance, helping to ‘up regulate’ and ‘down regulate’ your immune system faster so your system doesn’t become as allergic or inflamed.

Source: EpiCor.

EpiCor Protects against Cellular Damage

As we mentioned earlier, EpiCor is made with fermented yeast. Fermentation happens when yeast and bacteria break sugars into alcohol or acids. This gives us beneficial pre-, pro-, and post-biotics for our digestive health. Consuming these products can help our body have more antioxidants.

Yeast produces complex sugar molecules called polysaccharides. One of these is called beta-glucan which is known to increase our antioxidants to help prevent cell damage by eliminating free radicals. Eating fruits and vegetables also help boost antioxidants, delivering the same benefits.

EpiCor’s prebiotic effects increase ‘good’ bacteria (such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli), promoting better digestive health. But ‘good’ bacteria alone aren’t enough to help your intestine thrive.

An unhealthy diet of sugar, carbohydrates, and fats – without the right balance of lean meats, fruits, and vegetables – can lead to ‘bad’ bacteria overwhelming your microbiome. 

How to Take EpiCor

Each one of us has different genetics, epigenetics, immune systems, and lifestyles. Like a diet, your response to EpiCor will be different than mine. Similarly, the way that you administer it within your household may be different than ours. For example, at home, we take EpiCor every day. If we are around sick people or traveling, we double the dose. While it begins to work within two hours of taking it, effectiveness is best after 60 days. So it’s best to not skip a day!

If you’re looking for a bottle yourself, just know that EpiCor is a business to business company, so you’ll find several brands of supplements that include the recommended amount of 500mg in their products. As with any supplement, your physician can help guide you in this process.

People and Nature: Thriving Together in the African Grasslands

The Plight of the Pastoralists

Imagine an African landscape where wildlife, cattle, people, and native grasslands thrive together in harmony. North of Mt. Kenya and stretching toward the southern border of Ethiopia is an area called the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. This expansive, beautiful landscape is occupied by 26 indigenous tribes, mostly pastoralist communities who rely on cattle grazing on the grasslands for their livelihoods.

It was also once one of the most abundant wildlife areas on the continent, teeming with scores of black rhinos; however, poaching reduced the rhino population in Kenya from over 20,000 individuals in the 1960s to just over 500 in the 1980s.

The Start of Northern Rangelands Trust

My first trip to the Northern Rangelands came in 2017 while the area was in the grips of a long drought. It was desperate times with armed conflicts taking place between rival tribes trying to secure enough land to graze. Population growth and cultural traditions of managing cattle as a walking bank account led to dramatic growth in livestock numbers and overgrazing of the grassland. I had never seen a grassland in such tough condition and, given the circumstances, I was not overly optimistic on the prospects for renewal.

At the time, plans were being laid by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to create a new business model with market incentives for pastoralists who follow a planned grazing approach with the goal of improved grassland condition.

I questioned how the program would work given the simple fact that tribes who did improve their local grassland condition based on an adaptive management plan of grazing and rest, would simply attract other pastoralists from neighboring tribes to opportunistically graze off their good efforts when needed.

A Hopeful Return

Just recently, I returned to the same areas I visited in 2017. Following a period of above average rainfall, the grassland was in amazing condition, demonstrating the inherent resilience of the landscape. To the eye, it was a night and day difference. The team I had met with three years ago had made great progress, starting a new business model and partnership between the pastoralists and NRT called LivestockWORKS.

This program allows pastoralists to enter their livestock in a program designed to offer better market returns for the cattle. Pastoralists access the program by investing $10 per head, which is then matched by an investment of $20 per head by NRT. Their cattle are microchipped to maintain identity and then managed in a program involving adaptive planned grazing, access to veterinary services and better cattle genetics.

The fees invested also pay for NRT to provide grazing consultants to the community of pastoralists as well as funding the removal of invasive species, which overtake the grasslands in degraded areas. The fees also help manage plots to produce and harvest perennial grass seeds for reseeding of degraded areas.

These projects provide additional sources of employment for community members and it was encouraging to witness the dividends of their hard work when aided by the recent timely rains.

Another significant benefit of enrolling in the program is the opportunity to have access to grasslands on wildlife conservancies and private ranches closer to the market. The opportunity to add weight to their cattle immediately before harvest creates a more certain profit and is starting to reverse the long-held traditions of acquiring and managing more cattle as a sign of prosperity.

Now, some pastoralists are beginning to selectively cull their herds and add back individuals with the genetic potential to maximize the benefits of the new planned grazing program. As a result, the pastoralists can be confident to receive higher profits by participating in the LivestockWORKS program.

Benefiting Pastoralists and Beyond

It is often surprising for tourists visiting the wildlife conservancies to see cattle foraging areas thought to be reserved only for wildlife. When properly managed, the timely presence of cattle grazing actually improves the rangeland condition for wildlife, owing to the fact that cattle will forage different grassland species than a cape buffalo or rhino, benefitting all. NRT has invested in a sophisticated and effective security program, which has nearly eliminated the poaching issues in the area. With a healthy grassland and greater security wildlife numbers are increasing and tourism to the region is growing.

After several years of collaborative efforts between NRT, TNC, Soils for the Future and Native Energy to build a science baseline and develop effective monitoring, NRT is eligible to start earning carbon credits for the soil carbon sequestration activities their grassland restoration efforts are beginning to deliver.

The proceeds from this new revenue source will be reinvested in the improved management activities, with the hope of growing the number of tribes and community lands which can benefit from this new community-based conservation approach.

Taken altogether, it stands as a remarkable restoration example. While the program is still early in its implementation, it shows the potential of wise management anchored by a new business model where wildlife, tourism, tribal pastoralists, and cattle grazing together can make a more resilient landscape, improving both livelihoods and nature.

Valuing Conservation in the Economy

The Northern Rangelands Trust area may be one of the more extreme examples I have witnessed on the vital importance of restoring degraded lands, but it is not unique regarding the nature of the opportunity. Globally, the estimated value of ecosystem service losses due to land degradation is $6.9 to $10.6 trillion per year.

Equipped with the right knowledge and market incentives, we can create a new conservation-oriented economy based on the life-giving value of nature.

2 Trade Deals and Plant Food in a Pear Tree: Top News in 2019

This year’s reporting sets the stage for some tough discussions for the ag industry to what no doubt will be a series of challenges in 2020 – and beyond. Though it seems out of our hands, we as consumers have serious pull here based on our purchase decisions. And for the future of food and agriculture at large.


“Gee, that’s a tough one. So much happened it’s almost impossible to pick just a few!”

2019 has been jam-packed with news headlines affecting our choices in food, the well-being of our farmers, and how new technologies will disrupt the industry. Every day, we’ve heard and read about…

  • Throughout the year, farmers remained highly focused and surprisingly hopeful on trade issues, especially involving China and our North American trading partners
  • African swine fever is reshaping entire markets, with the virus resulting in 40% of the global pig population to be culled
  • The ongoing RoundUp trial regarding glyphosate has enormous implications for farm production, Bayer’s balance sheet, and legal stakes with human health
  • Investment in ag technology has exploded in areas such as big data, precision farming, and food supply transparency, with all sorts of new doors opening for all parts of the food system
  • And the rapid developments in genetic engineering, such as GMOs, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, have created an ongoing debate over their regulation worldwide
  • A focus on soil health and other dimensions of ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become more critical for the health of future harvests
  • Claims and counter-claims have been made about finding the right balance between a healthy diet and best use of natural resources for our global health
  • Food labeling requirements have gathered steam as consumers drive greater demand for transparency along the entire supply chain
  • Food insecurity once again is on the rise around the world, as the United Nations reports

So, how do you pick from that hefty list? Here’s my attempt to weed out the most critical issues as we come into 2020. Take a look at my countdown and let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!

#4. Food Safety.

The African Swine Flu swept through Asia and decimated the pig population. There are 770 million domestic pigs on various farms worldwide – at least 300 million have died. That is a lot of pigs to bury. China was hit the hardest as they have 440 million pigs – almost half of which have been affected. This does not only have implications for the hog farmers, but it shows how quickly a virus can spread around the world.

Food safety and animal welfare are critical components here:

  • How can we improve the quarantine process for animals and poultry?
  • Will the African Swine Flu virus spread? What are the implications?
  • Will the reduced pork supply change our buying habits? If so, what other forms of protein are we likely to eat?

This is an incredible amount to think about as we head into the new year, and we are only on the first point!

 #3. Weather alert.

When a 95-year-old corn and beans farmer in Central Illinois, who is still farming the 1,500 acres he owned since the 1920s, says he can’t remember a worse spring for planting in seven decades of farming, we all should pay attention. Add lingering wet conditions to the mix, and you have the prescription for significant harvest delays and losses – we’re talking up to half of last year’s corn and soybean crop levels in parts of the upper Midwest.

Bad weather is nothing new for farmers, of course. But the extent and severity of this year’s bad conditions caused huge damage, disrupted lives and entire communities, and only complicated the production picture for farmers already reeling from steady income declines.

Maybe more significantly, these reports may prove to be harbingers of the bigger questions yet to come for agriculture about climate change:

  • Will consumers accept seed technology and gene editing to help crops grow in wetter, cooler, drier, and/or drought conditions?
  • Can the four-row crops, canola, soybeans, cotton, and corn, be modified to grow in new climate regions?
  • Are there specialized crops that are more adaptable to varied climates?
  • What technologies and farming practices will be implemented to keep our soil secure? No-till farming and cover cropping quickly come to mind here.

And focusing on farmers is just a piece to a much larger puzzle. The right response to climate change involves all industries: from the municipalities, to the golf course, to the housing developer and homeowner, and beyond.

#2. It’s all about the trade.

I wish I had a dime for every time the word “China” appeared in a farm-related story this year. By now, we’ve all figured out just how important China is to U.S. agricultural interests – not just soybean producers, but a lot of other growers, suppliers, and people along the supply chain, too.

That political football has been kicked around all year, with a fair amount of optimism with China’s agreement to buy $50 billion in agricultural goods, up from $23.8 billion in 2017 (52% of which was comprised of soybeans). We hope to get this all sorted out so we can get back to normal in a huge and growing trade relationship.

Finalized on December 10th, the USMCA (U.S.- Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly NAFTA, was a win for American agriculture. Canada and Mexico are integral to our trade health, as these countries are the U.S.’s first and third largest export markets for food and ag, respectively. Together, this equals about 28% of total food and ag exports in 2017. The USMCA is anticipated to increase US ag exports by $2 billion. Even though NAFTA was a free trade zone, there were still some tariffs and quotas.

The new USMCA will be a win for U.S. dairy farmers, as this agreement will open up opportunities for milk products such as cheese, cream, and yogurt. It will also expand U.S. poultry and egg market access to Canada. Mexico and the U.S. will have the same grading standards for ag products. Finally, the three countries will have the same sanitary standards, based on science as well as agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.

As Trump pushes forward with success on these fronts, it still brings forward new questions for the future:

  • What will China buy to reach $50 billion? More soybeans?
  • Will trade always be used as a leverage point between the U.S. and other countries?
  • How can we protect the U.S. while still ensuring we have global fair trade?
  • Will we have other multilateral agreements such as USMCA?
  • Will China’s theft of intellectual property continue to occur?

#1. Plant-based protein.

I used to call it “alternative meat,” but the story is a lot bigger than that now. Plant-based meats, eggs, fish, milk, leather, and even collagen for your skin, are here to stay. The speed with which companies like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats gathered steam (and investor dollars) absolutely amazed me in 2019.

According to AgFunder, ‘The alternative meat market sales growth is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $140 billion ten years from now, growing to 10% of the total meat market.’

But let’s put this in perspective: the total animal products industry in 2018 was close to $2.23 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2025. There is plenty of opportunity for all types of protein producers. But I never would have expected to be deluged with fast-food ads on television pushing exciting new vegetable-based burgers, or to see so many people willing to give it a try.

To me, that’s surprising, but in a very good way: consumers should have a choice. They should be able to choose products that meet their tastes and align with their values.

If someone wants to eat a veggie burger or a meat product produced in a lab, for health reasons, for environmental concerns, for moral values, so be it. Just don’t tell me that I have to eat one or the other. Let me choose. But let me choose facts, not marketing. Let the markets work.

As more and more consumers indicate their preference for plant-based foods, what implications does this have?

  • Are consumers getting the facts about meat and dairy, or is it marketing?
  • As consumers move away from meat, how are they getting their daily recommended protein requirements?
  • Demand for plants and meat will rise as our population grows. How do global producers sustainably meet demand?
  • What kind of labeling information does the consumer require to make an educated choice?

This is a profoundly important story about how responsive our food system is proving to be. Consumer tastes and preferences are changing as society changes around us. That should surprise no one. But the story of how fast and how well the food system can recognize that change and accommodate it is indeed newsworthy and earns my number one spot for the Top Food and Ag story of 2019. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes from here.

Fair Oaks Farms: Taking Responsibility

Fair Oaks Farms

What happened on Fair Oaks Farm is surprising, unacceptable and horrifying. Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) videotaped five people, four of whom were employees, severely abusing calves. Fair Oaks had previously terminated three of these employees before the videos were released. The fourth, who was behind the video camera, was terminated after the videos were released. Additionally, there was a truck driver involved who worked for Midwest Veal, a company that picks up and delivers calves between farms or for delivery to processors. He is now banned from any Fair Oaks Farm.

A few years ago, I was so excited to hear about the partnership between Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana and Coca Cola. They created a new technology that gives us healthy nutrients, such as DHA and more protein, while reducing the sugar and fat compared to other milks.  They have committed to traceability and sustainable farming – which includes exceptional cow care.  I have never looked back.

CEO Takes Full Responsibility

It is not the challenges that define you as an individual or a company, it is how you handle them and prevent them from occurring again.

Mike McCloskey, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, immediately took control and made a statement:

I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals.

While they already have a strong policy which adheres to each animal’s welfare, Fair Oaks Farms has now strengthened it further. It is due to their existing policy of “if you see something – say something”, they were able to fire the three criminals well before the videos came out. His additional policies not only will make Fair Oaks cows more protected, but this will most likely filter out to other large dairies, thus making animal welfare an even more significant focus on his farms.

McCloskey guarantees this will not happen again at Fair Oaks Farms, as he has already implemented the following protocols since the incident:

  • Invested in a 24-hour camera system at each point where animals and personnel interact. This will stream live into the public domain and the Fair Oaks Adventure Center.

  • Contracted with a third-party animal welfare company to perform random audits on his facility and expects that they will be on his facilities every other week. They will report directly to McCloskey.

  • Hired an animal welfare specialist to continually train all employees at all locations and be responsible for reporting on animal welfare. All employees will continue their animal welfare training upon hiring.

  • Working with an attorney to prosecute the employees in the video and any future animal abusers.

Changing an Industry for the Better

This fallout has caused some grocery stores to pull Fairlife from their shelves. Some people have elicited a ban on Fair Oaks dairy products, or even dairy itself, saying that the entire industry abuses their animals. This is not true. This is not the first time some twisted individual has infiltrated a company in an attempt to spread rhetoric like this.

How many of us take Tylenol or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories? If you recall the Tylenol scare in 1982, someone replaced extra-strength Tylenol pills with deadly cyanide-laced capsules pills inside the Tylenol bottles, resealed the boxes and put them on pharmacy shelves near Chicago. Seven people died. Jim Burke, the CEO, immediately pulled all Tylenol bottles off the shelves and set the new standard for safety. Johnson & Johnson was the first company to implement triple-sealed tamper-resistant packaging. We, the consumers, didn’t reject all anti-inflammatories as a result of this disaster.

Who’s Next to Take Responsibility?

In the Fair Oaks case, there are a couple of unanswered questions:

  • If ARM has the best interest of the animals at stake, why didn’t the person behind the video camera report the abuse immediately? It is difficult enough to watch the video – how could someone film this without saying something?

  • Who was the person behind the camera? Was it one of the three employees who was fired?

  • The videos ended in October of 2018; why did it take nine months to report such abusive behavior?

We might never know the answers. What we do know is that workplace violence is a form of terrorism, in this case, on animals.

Supporting the dairy industry is more important than ever. 95% of American dairy farms are family owned. The U.S. dairy industry employs, directly and indirectly, almost 3 million people with over 40,000 farms and 1,300 facilities. Banning an entire industry because of five violent individuals just doesn’t make sense.

Temple Grandin’s Advice to Fair Oaks Farms


The original article was published on June 17, 2019 at MEAT + POULTRY as Editor’s Blog: Temple Grandin’s advice to Fair Oaks Farms in undercover video aftermath.

The recent release of undercover video footage by Animal Recovery Mission, depicting animal cruelty at a dairy production facility owned by Fair Oaks Farms called into question the Fair Oaks, Indiana-based company’s animal welfare practices and has triggered a proactive response from the company. Founder Mike McCloskey, DVM, has published a series of video messages on the Fair Oaks Farms website, expressing his disappointment in the content of the footage and the company’s plan to rectify the situation, which included terminating the four individuals responsible for the animal cruelty. As part of a series of videos on the company’s website, he also pledged to share the enhancements to the company’s animal welfare practices moving forward.

Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ. and a contributing editor to MEAT+POULTRY praised the company’s response to the video and suggested some next steps for Fair Oaks to take. She also addressed some of the underlying issues related to the latest incident that should be addressed by all stakeholders in the dairy and beef industry supply chain. Below is Grandin’s response, emailed to M+P:

Mike McCloskey, the founder of Fair Oaks Farm, delivered an excellent response. Fair Oaks has been a leader in agritourism and his dairy is open for public tours. He admitted that employee training was not sufficient and that video cameras are going to be installed throughout the farm. For further transparency, visitors in his museum and visitor’s center will be able to view the cameras. Therefore, visitors will always be watching.

During its investigation, Animal Recovery Mission representatives followed a trailer full of very young calves to a veal farm that had old-style confined crates. It was a crate design that should have been phased out years ago. The most modern veal farms use a much-less restrictive system.

Meanwhile, the entire dairy industry must address the issue of bull calves. In some parts of the country, they are fed in beef feedlots to produce beef. Holstein steers produce excellent beef, but unless they are fed carefully, they may have severe liver abscesses that cause line stoppages at processing plants. Another problem is that Holstein steers can grow really tall and they drag on the floor during processing. Some fed-beef plants now have a height indicator at the unloading chute. Animals that are too tall are rejected. There is one major fed-beef plant that has stopped processing Holstein beef because they cause too many problems.

The dairy industry must stop treating beef as a byproduct

Additionally, the dairy industry must stop treating beef as a byproduct. Some dairies have already started using beef semen and sell all the calves produced with it for beef. Common choices of semen are either Angus or Angus x Simmental. Some of the animal abuse on the video was directed at weak calves that refused to walk. Beef breed calves are often more vigorous and walk more easily. The ideal beef semen would produce a small, vigorous calf that would not grow too tall. A possible factor contributing to numerous liver abscesses is feeding cattle too much grain to quickly fatten the animals before they become too tall.

To be proactive, Fair Oaks and many other dairies should follow bull calves throughout the supply chain. Loading bull calves on a trailer and pretending they disappear is no longer acceptable. The entire dairy industry needs to change. The silver lining in this is that developing a really good beef business would help offset low milk prices.

Four next steps for Fair Oaks Farms

  • Start using beef semen to produce high-quality beef calves;

  • Create relationships with calf producers and feedlot operators who feed the dairy beef animals. Also, choose feedlots that are well-designed for drainage so steers will stay clean and provide shade for the steers;

  • Use pain relief medication for castration; and

  • Develop an auditing and inspection system for the dairy beef cattle.

The dairy industry can no longer ignore the bull calf problem. They need to take steps to get control of what happens to bull calves. Really progressive managers may have the vision to develop a new specialty beef market, which will enable them to make money when milk prices are low.

California Megafires and the Effects on Agriculture

wildfire in the background of farm field

California leads the nation in producing 90% of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Grapes, almonds, tomatoes, broccoli and much more are grown in the fertile valleys between mountain and sea. Unmatched by any other state in terms of output per acre, the yield in California is 60 percent higher than the national average.

In addition to being a major produce player, California holds the #1 spot in dairy production in all of the U.S., grossing upwards of $6.5 billion in 2017. Cattle for meat production in California is valued at roughly $2.5 billion.

To round out this workhorse state, California produces over 90% of all U.S. wine.

However, California’s recent drought and long dry season make it more susceptible to fire. In the past two years, uncontained wildfires have devastated over 7.3 million acres of land in the golden state. That is about the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined!

Infographic by Sara Chodosh, capturing the intensity of the fires in California in the last five years.

The majority of the 2017-2018 fires were contained within the forests and non-agricultural land, but a number of rangelands, cannabis farms, dairy farms, citrus groves, avocado orchards, and vineyards were affected, making an impact on growers and California’s $50 billion agricultural industry.


The rate of burn for the 2018 Camp fire is incomprehensible; increasing in speed from 20,000 acres to over 100,000 acres burned in two days. That rate of scorch is equivalent to one football field burning every second. (Source)

Wine: Unintended Ashy Undertones

Unlike the 2017 fires where most of the wine crop had already been harvested, 2018’s bore witness to California’s most severe fires, which spread just before or at the onset of ripening, when grapes soften and change color.

Grapes are vulnerable to smoke damage because of their permeable skin. Depending on fire intensity, length of smoke exposure and stage of vine growth, unharvested grapes can take on smoky, ashy, or bitter characteristics. Consumers find this “smoke taint” unappealing.

While only a small percentage of wines may have been affected by fires and smoke, and these undesirable characteristics of smoke taint can be managed, winemakers do have to take on added costs in eradicating these flavors to avoid disappointing wine drinkers!

Scorched ground and shriveled grapes at the Michael Mondavi Atlas Peak Vineyard (Source: Winespectator.com)

Livestock Rangeland Scorched

The wildfires had an impact on the region’s farms and ranches, burning buildings, and the grazing land for dairy cows, cattle, horses, and other livestock. Butte County, where the 2018 Camp Fire raged, suffered rangeland losses of 30,000 to 40,000 acres, displaced animals, and destroyed pens, corrals, barns and more.

The Thomas Fire impacted all 7000 acres of rangeland stewarded by the
RA Atmore & Sons and Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust.

“Many of the oak woodlands were lost to the fire, as well as cattle, miles of fences, and other ranch infrastructure. The grasses and other vegetation are coming back. We will be battling invasive and noxious weeds now more than ever. We will need to adaptably manage woody species within the rangeland to achieve realistic goals that serve to improve forage, enhance wildlife habitat and protect our urban neighbors from the devastating effects of wildfire. One thing we learned from the Thomas Fire was “it’s not a matter of if the next Thomas Fire will come; but when.”  Richard Atmore, Ventura County Annual Crop and Livestock  Report, 2017

A cow walks by the flaming hillside in Groveland, California, August 2013. Source: Noah Berger, for National Geographic

Fruits & Veggies Fried

Ventura County, home to 118,000 acres of prime farmland and more than ½ of the total harvested acreage in the country for avocado, lemon, celery, and strawberries, was hit particularly hard during the 2017 Thomas Fire. The fire inflicted severe damage on hillside ranches, consuming forage needed for livestock, destroying barns, irrigation systems, equipment and machinery, and scorching or incinerating several thousand acres of avocado and citrus trees.

“We estimate that we lost 80% of our avocado crop for this year and next. At this point, four months after the fire, we project that over 40% of our avocado trees are dead or unlikely to recover fully. That is over 60 acres. Avocados take several years to come into full production. Even if we could replant right away, we are looking at about 6 years to full recovery.,Realistically, if we replant everything to avocados, it will be many years before we can get back to 2016 production levels.”  –Deborah Brokaw Jackson Brokaw Ranch Company  (SourceVentura County Annual Crop and Livestock  Report, 2017)

As the fires in the hillsides raged, the smoke traveled for miles. This complicated the lives of the farmers and farmworkers and the harvesting of perishable vegetables. The thick smoke haze delayed ripening and harvest, and workers couldn’t work in the fields due to unhealthy air conditions. An already stressed labor situation now experienced shortages of manpower.

Soiled Soil

Wildfires have a direct effect on soil. Contrary to a prescribed burn— which is a healthy burn often utilized by farmers to eradicate weeds or unneeded brush, or by forest rangers to manage forests from forest fires— an uncontrolled wild burn can yield heat levels above 400 degrees. These temperatures can cause irreversible harm to the land.

When the soil is burned at such high temperatures, the organic matter is incinerated. Depending on the intensity and duration of the fire, the recuperation time can be upwards of three years for soil to fully restore nutrients back to its original state. The hard, ashy residues that are left on the topsoil decrease the ability of the soil to absorb water, which increases the likelihood of runoff.

The graphic depicts the inability of water to penetrate the ashy soil, which causes dangerous runoff. (Source)

Because the soil can no longer take in water, there is an increased risk for landslides and flooding. In addition, the silt from the landslides can overrun the reservoirs, contaminate drinking water and create blockages in irrigation systems that supply water to farmlands. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored—up to five years after a wildfire. Mudslides and flooding are the current challenges California is facing in the wake of the recent fires.

How are farmers and ranchers protected from these disasters?

The U.S. Federal government plays a significant role in assisting farmers and ranchers with financial losses caused by natural disasters through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 acknowledges the shared responsibility of disaster response and recovery and aims to build the nation’s capacity for the next catastrophic event.

Animal Antibiotics: Should We Be Concerned?


Last week was U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week, which was sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the World Health Organization has stated that global antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest issues facing human health today. Our team decided to dive into a common consumer concern – the belief that most antibiotic-resistant infections stem from animal production.

Resistance occurs naturally as bacteria mutate, but the overuse of antibiotics has accelerated this process. For instance, overuse or misuse comes when people take antibiotics for a cold or don’t finish their full prescription. Overuse toward animals is when too many antibiotics are given in their feed or water for their growth. Today, when large amounts of antibiotics are present in an environment – whether it is a hospital or in the feedlot – the mutated strain can reproduce faster than the antibiotic.

No one wants to unknowingly eat foods with antibiotic residues or that contain resistant strains of bacteria. To better understand this, we set out to answer four major questions:

  1. Why do farmers use antibiotics in animals in the first place?
  2. If I eat animals treated with antibiotics, will the bacteria in my body become antibiotic resistant?
  3. If the chicken breast I regularly buy at the store doesn’t say “antibiotic free”, does that mean I am unknowingly consuming antibiotics?
  4. How are regulators and companies in the food industry monitoring antibiotics used for both animals and humans?

Why do farmers give animals antibiotics?

Farmers give animals antibiotics when they are sick. It is inhumane not to! Just like with humans, if an animal contracts a bacterial infection, it would be torture to not treat them with antibiotics. Not to mention, this also keeps the sick animal from passing an infection through the herd.

Antibiotics are also given to support animal growth rates. Farmers administer them routinely in feed or water to help grow animals, poultry, and fish more quickly. The premise behind this application is that if an animal’s immune system is not fighting off a disease, then their bodies will spend their energy growing instead of trying to stay healthy. This application for antibiotics is being heavily scrutinized.

If I eat animals treated with antibiotics, will the bacteria in my body become antibiotic resistant?

No. When meat is properly cooked, there is no chance of becoming resistant to antibiotics in your kitchen. A minimum heat of 160 degrees kills all bacteria – resistant or not. The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that you clean, separate, cook, and chill your meat properly to prevent getting a foodborne illness.

image source: Foodal

What if the chicken breast I regularly buy at the store doesn’t say “antibiotic free”? Does that mean I am unknowingly eating antibiotics?

No. Even though a farmer will use antibiotics to treat a sick animal, the FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all animals, poultry, and fish be clear of any antibiotic residue before it is harvested. They also specifically state the maximum dosage based on type and weight. All chicken, beef, turkey, pork, eggs, milk, and fish are antibiotic-free by the time they get to the grocery store.

The U.S. National Residue Program, an interagency program between the FSIS, FDA, EPA, and the USDA tests for any chemical or drug residues as well as foodborne illnesses in all types of animal products. Testing is consistent, the rules are clear, and the consequences are harsh. In 2017, less than 1% of the samples contained an antibiotic residue.

A Dirt-to-Dinner chicken

What is being done to combat antibiotic resistance in farm animal production?

The FDA has enacted a five-year plan to curtail antibiotic use in animals. This plan includes the following guidelines:

  1. No medically important antibiotics (that means antibiotics that are also used to treat human bacterial infections) can be used to treat animals for growth. Medically important drugs, such as tetracyclines and penicillin, will no longer be used to treat animals.
  2. Veterinarians must supervise the use of any medically important antibiotics given to food production animals for the sole purpose of treating illnesses.

As of July 2018, Iowa State University is leading a national institute to address this public health issue. They have partnered with the USDA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Medical Center, Mayo Clinic and other organizations to form the Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education.

Major food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, and food producers have vowed to reduce antibiotic use, mostly for growth purposes. Many are doing intense research on animal gut health to reduce the need for antibiotics. Animal welfare also plays a role to make sure the animals, poultry, and fish are growing in a healthy environment. Antibiotics will no longer be used as a crutch for poor animal care.

Putting antibiotics into perspective

Those fearful of antibiotics used in food production often misinterpret the statistic that 80% of all antibiotics are used for animal production. This number is misleading, and simply put, is a matter of volume…

Each year, about 8 billion chickens, 200 million turkeys, 100 million hogs and 30 million cattle are processed in the U.S. alone. Compare that number to the U.S. human population of 325 million. That’s only 40% of the animal volume!

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most of the biggest threats can be avoided if one stays healthy and doesn’t overdo it on the antibiotics. When it comes to concerns about our food supply, the three most prevalent antibiotic-resistant strains are not the result of animal antibiotics. They are found either in hospitals or are spread from person to person: Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, and Neisseria gonorrhea. One example is C. Difficile due to the overuse of antibiotics.

The CDC states that overuse is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world. They state that up to 50% of all antibiotics prescribed to humans are either not needed or not used properly. The two that are related to food are Campylobacter and Salmonella. But those can be prevented by handling your meat carefully and cooking it properly!

Are There Hormones in Milk?

holstein dairy cattle in field with blue sky

This day and age, you would be hard-pressed to find a multimillion-dollar industry free of controversy. Dairy farmers know this reality all too well. The consumer perception of hormones in milk products is an example of marketing claims gone awry. Because of consumer misunderstanding, the dairy industry changed without any regard for science. Despite many validated scientific studies and numerous regulatory approvals, the use of rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) has been reduced from dairy farming because of the fear generated by misinformed consumers and tactful marketing claims.

There is no such thing as hormone-free milk!

All milking cows are females that have recently given birth and have hormones. Just like humans! In fact, if female cows didn’t produce hormones, they would not be able to have babies and produce milk. Once a cow has given birth, she produces milk for approximately 10 months.

What is rBST or rBGH?

BST, or bovine somatotropin, is a naturally occurring protein hormone produced by a female cow’s pituitary gland. Somatotropin regulates the cow’s metabolism and determines how efficiently a cow converts her feed into milk. Bovine somatotropin (BST) is also referred to as Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). rBST is the synthetic version of BST— it is an exact replica of the naturally-occurring BST hormone, recreated in a lab. After decades of scientific research, scientists recognized that cows supplemented with additional somatotropin produce on average 10-15% more milk every day. There is no discernible difference between milk from treated or untreated cows. When comparing treated versus untreated milk, it is impossible to detect the use of rBST.

In the 1970s, the biotechnology company, Genentech, discovered the BST gene and proceeded to synthesize the hormone to create rBST. Pharmaceutical companies were then able to commercialize the technology in order to sell the product to farmers. Monsanto, for example, licensed Genentech’s patent and was the first company to receive approval from the FDA. Monsanto then sold their product to dairy farmers and cows across the United States were given rBST to increase milk production.

Milk is a commodity and for this reason, it is very hard to distinguish the milk from one dairy cow to another. Farm profitability depends on both the available milk supply and consumer demand.

In 1997, Oakhurst Dairy in Maine was struggling to differentiate their company from larger competitors. The owner of Oakhurst decided to give financial incentives to their dairy farmers and in return asked them to sign a pledge rejecting the use of additional hormones. Thus began the marketing and enticing consumers to drink ‘rBST free’ milk.

Even Oakhurst Dairy, which prides itself on being “America’s first Farmers Pledge” against rBST must also include “FDA states no significant difference in milk treated with artificial growth hormone” on their label. (Source: WGME)

How do we know rBST is safe?

BST (and the synthetic rBST) is a hormone that is specific to bovines. The human body does not produce it or have a need for it. So, if you are an avid milk drinker, you can rest assured that your body does not recognize BST as usable in the human body. Because it is a protein, the human body will effectively break it down (like any other protein) and eliminate it. Therefore both BST and rBST have no impact as a growth hormone in humans.

In 1993, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of rBST in cattle. The World Health Organization Committee (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) followed suit and deemed rBST safe for consumer use. Today, over 90,000 scientific reviews and studies document the safety of rBST on both humans and cows.

According to The American Cancer Society, consumers should not fear the insulin-like hormones, “at this time, it is not clear that drinking milk, produced with or without rBGH treatment, increases blood IGF-1 levels into a range that might be of concern regarding cancer risk or other health effects.”

Mary Kraft is a dairy farmer from Fort Morgan, Colorado. She explains hormone use in milk production and why she feels confident that the milk we all drink is safe and healthy.
Source: www.findourcommonground.com

rBST is proven not to affect human health or the nutritional quality of milk, but there are some studies that argue rBST causes mastitis (udder infections), reduction in fertility, and lameness in cows. These alleged side effects, along with the results from a 2003 meta-analysis confirming these findings, resulted in several countries banning the use of rBST. However, 11 years later, a 2014 meta-analysis, sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association, showed no ill-health effects to cows given rBST. Given these conflicting opinions, the Dirt-to-Dinner team was curious about what the farmer had to say— after all no one cares more about having healthy dairy cows than a dairy farmer. When speaking with various dairy farmers, they all agree that that the health of the cow depends on the farmer. Dairy cows are like Olympic athletes. If farmers feed their cows well, clean them properly, and monitor their activity they will stay healthy. For example, if they are given rBST and their udders are not monitored and cleaned there is an increased risk of mastitis, but if they are well-cared for the farmer can eliminate that risk!

The Sustainability Factor

The use of rBST can help the environment. Dr. Normand St-Pierre, a retired dairy specialist from Ohio State University, examined a recent study that calculated the number of various pollutants that were inevitably not produced with the use of rBST.

In the study, milk created by the one million dairy cows supplemented with rBST inevitably reduced the number of cows needed to create the same amount of milk. This reduced manure excretion by 3.3 billion pounds per year. It also reduced emissions of CO2 1.3 billion pounds per year—the equivalent of over 350,000 family cars.

The point? Technology often improves efficiency on the farm. In the case of rBST, the environment benefited through fewer carbon emissions and the consumer benefited through more affordable milk and milk products. Technology can lead to efficiency – more milk with less water, waste, and land use. From a farmer’s (and consumer’s) perspective this is a positive in terms of business and environmental impact.

Labels are often used as marketing gimmicks

The ‘BST Free,’ ‘rBST Free’, or ‘rBGH’ labels are often used as marketing gimmicks. This continued marketing ploy drives consumer perception. American farmers work with very thin margins. Our farmers are expected to produce viable dairy products on a specific amount of land, water, and resources. The average farmer produces approximately 38,000 glasses of milk a year, with the average consumer consuming roughly 325 glasses of milk a year. Why not allow farmers to produce this using fewer cows rather than putting stress on our environment?

Labels can be confusing. Here not only are customers assured that this milk is free of hormones, but also states that the use of rBST in dairy farming is safe.

rBGH is practically a non-issue today—most producers no longer use rBGH. In 2007, a government study projected that roughly 17% of US cows were treated with rBST and that number has continued to decline. But understanding this social controversy is very important. Why do we ignore the data? As we have seen with GMOs, consumer perception can negatively affect successful food technology.

Let The Hens Out! Cage Free Eggs

Free range brown chickens

Over the past several years, consumers have voiced their concerns about the way poultry is raised. The traditional method of placing many birds in a cage where it cannot fluff its wings or roam freely seems cruel. So, consumers are demanding farmers let the chickens out of their cages. And subsequently, there has been a cascade of announcements from almost every fast food and restaurant chain, food manufacturer, and meat and egg producer making commitments to improve farm animal confinement standards.

States, too are enacting new regulations on how animals are raised. In 2015, a California statute went into effect that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. For egg laying chickens, this means at least 116 square inches of floor space, compared to the industry standard of 67 square inches in a battery cage. Voters in Massachusetts will consider a similar ballot measure in November 2016, whereby 2022 all eggs sold in the state will be “cage-free” and chickens will be given 216 square inches of space. This can be complicated because different states and different companies have their own definitions of cage-free. Some, like McDonald’s, require the birds to be able to roam around and some, like California, allow cages, albeit big enough for the chicken to fluff her wings.

Either way, these state’s decisions have a ripple effect for producers beyond their borders. Farmers and big agricultural enterprises have responded by converting hen housing systems to cage-free. In fact, the European Union banned the use of conventional battery cage eggs in 2012. The move towards cage-free egg production is effectively underway. But this is no easy feat since most of the eggs today are NOT cage free as it is much easier to control egg production as well as the chicken mortality rate if they are in cages. So now farmers are thinking of innovative strategies on how to sustain chickens and egg production on their farm – while allowing the birds to roam around, happily.

As it turns out, going cage-free requires much more planning, money, and logistical engineering than the seemingly simple notion of setting some hens free would suggest. Ironically, this massive supply chain overhaul stems from consumer demand to return to the egg-producing practices of our pre-industrial past, but without undoing all the positive benefits of scale, affordability, and safety that were achieved through industrialization. It actually took farmers a really long time to figure out how to put the bird in the cage—and it’s going to take a while to figure out how to get it back out.

(Wired Magazine, 2016)

The Conventional System of Egg Production

Conventional Cage System. Photo: Big Dutchman

Ironically, when egg farmers adopted these cages in the 1950s, they considered it progress! The ability to control and monitor the lives of the chickens made the houses and eggs cleaner than before. However, a 2010 nationwide recall of shell eggs following an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis exposed some poorly managed egg farms as having very unsanitary and unfavorable conditions for the chickens and eggs. The Salmonella outbreak did nothing to improve the image of big commercial egg farms, who had already been criticized for squeezing hens into tiny, restrictive cages. In the months following the recall, producers of organic, cage-free, and free-range eggs struggled to keep up with a sudden surge in consumer demand.

So What is A Cage Free Egg?

Cage Free – Aviary System. Photo: Big Dutchman

Presently, 10 percent (fewer than 30 million eggs) of America’s eggs are from cage-free systems such as organic, pasture-raised, or indoor cage-free systems. But, if you think that “cage-free” implies happy chickens pecking at insects and fluffing their feathers outdoors in the countryside, think again! The USDA loosely defines “cage-free,” and interpretations will vary according to the producer.

Eggs labeled “cage-free” or “from free-roaming hens” are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.

Cage Free – Enriched Colony System. Photo: Big Dutchman

These hens are generally living in indoor-floor facilities and may have access to a multi-tiered indoor environment called an “aviary.” Hens laying cage-free eggs theoretically are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests. However, mortality rates are generally higher (about 5%) because the hens tend to peck at each other, causing injury. Cage-free systems offer a chicken more freedom of movement to act and behave like a chicken.

In addition to “cage-free” claims, egg producers often participate in additional certification programs with varying claims of improved animal welfare. Here is a chart summarizing some of these marketing claims:

Credit: Takepart.com

How is Egg Safety Ensured?

Eggs are a relatively safe product and are getting safer. Many farmers vaccinate their chickens against salmonella, and the FDA Egg Safety Rule, (2010) provides specific steps, including requiring producers to maintain a written Salmonella Enteritidis prevention plan and document their compliance aimed at reducing human Salmonella infections caused by eggs. Scientists estimate that, on average across the U.S., only 1 of every 20,000 eggs might contain the bacteria. So, although you should always practice safe food handling, the likelihood that an egg might contain Se is extremely small – 0.005% (five one-thousandths of one percent). At this rate, if you’re an average consumer, you might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. (Incredible Egg)

Many government agencies cooperate to ensure the safety of shell eggs from farm to table. Involved government agencies include USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and State departments of agriculture.

Egg and Poultry Facts

  • There are no nutritional or food safety differences between eggs produced in cage-free or conventional houses. The labels refer to the housing environment where the hens live and produce eggs. When managed properly, all production environments (conventional, enriched cage, cage-free and organic/free range) provide safe, nutritious, quality eggs.
  • Hormones are banned for use in poultry in the U.S. (but that doesn’t stop chicken producers from marketing their birds as hormone-free!)
  • Broilers, those chickens raised for meat, are always raised “cage-free” in poultry houses. Broilers can be free-range or pastured raised as well.

Is cage-free better for the hens?

Yes, if you think a hen should be able to act like a hen. But there are some trade-offs.

However, the first study to analyze different housing arrangements on a commercial scale basis, from a sustainable perspective was published in 2015 from an industry consortium called the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply. The objective of the Coalition’s research was to evaluate various laying hen housing systems measuring five sustainability factors: food safety, the environment, hen health/well being, worker health/safety, and food affordability. The broad coalition was made up of leading animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/food service and food retail companies.

The study examined three different layer housing systems – conventional cages (used as a baseline), cage-free aviary, and enriched colonies (a hybrid of cage and cage-free)

Although the research assessed elements of hen housing and egg production using a single hen breed/strain, in a particular region of the U.S., it found there are positive and negative impacts and trade-offs associated with each of the three hen housing systems relative to each of the five sustainability areas.

Essentially, the results reveal that even though it costs 30%-40 % more to raise birds in the Aviary and Enriched Colony systems, those birds were able to engage in their hen-like behavior of flying, perching, and dust-bathing. These two systems did have more dust and emissions because of the improved freedom of the birds and the challenge of cleaning up the litter. While hen mortality rate was greatest in the Aviary, the hens were able to have more of a “hen-like” life.

Where does this leave us (and the chickens?)

To the elation of animal welfare advocates and consumers who have been lobbying hard for the chickens, the industry is changing. Cage-Free systems ultimately represent progress and a more thoughtful connection between humans and the animals that provide us with food. Major companies have committed to going cage-free, subsequently driving producers to alter their practices. In Europe, the Enriched Colony housing system is emerging as a preferred cage free method as it combines many of the advantages of both the cage and cage-free systems. Fully enriched systems provide hens with many enhancements such as perching, scratching, and foraging areas, as well as secluded nesting areas so she can lay her eggs in private. Egg farmers need to find ways in which to manage more birds in the most efficient manner while using fewer land resources. Economies of scale and improvements in technology and breeding will make a conversion to cage-free systems a reasonable and necessary capital investment for egg producers.

Wild vs. Farmed Salmon

salmon swimming upstream

I traveled along the coast of Norway to visit salmon farms and see if there truly was a difference to our health and the environment between wild and farmed salmon   Before this trip, I would always purchase wild salmon over farmed. When I think of “wild caught salmon” I thought of untouched salmon leaping and splashing upstream to spawn in a clean river nestled below forested and snowcapped mountains. And while it is true that wild salmon do jump upstream—you can watch the grizzlies enjoying that—not all wild salmon are better for you and it is not necessarily better for the environment to eat wild salmon.

The general understanding of farm-raised salmon is vague because the process of farming these typically wild fish is not discussed very often. It is safe to say that the majority of salmon-eaters are not quite sure how farmed salmon are grown, bred, and harvested for food. This uncertainty often leads to fear of the unknown. You might envision a large metal holding tank filled with dirty water, chemicals, fish food residue, and packed with fish unhappily swimming in circles. Well, thankfully, this perception is not reality.

The Global Salmon Initiative

The Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) is a leadership initiative established by leading farmed salmon CEOs from around the world who share a vision of providing a healthy and sustainable source of protein to feed a growing population while minimizing their environmental footprint and continuing to improve their social contribution. (Global Salmon Initiative)

Why is salmon such a popular food?

These fish are a healthy source of protein and fatty acids. A four ounce serving of salmon contains 23 grams of protein! That is roughly 50% of your suggested daily intake of protein. Salmon is also loaded with Vitamins B-6, B-12, C, potassium, and more. Not to mention they are extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help your body protect itself against heart disease, lower the levels of unhealthy blood fats (also known as triglycerides), and may reduce joint inflammation.

A 4 oz serving of salmon contains 23 grams of protein!

Where does our salmon come from?

Today, wild salmon primarily come from the rivers off the northern Pacific Ocean surrounding Alaska, Russia, and Japan. Wild Atlantic salmon also border the northern shores of the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia. These fish are born in fresh water and migrate to the ocean but return to the fresh water when they reproduce. The average wild salmon lives for about six years. This is assuming life goes well and there are no diseases, predators, extreme temperature fluctuations, or too much competition for food.

In the wild, salmon are born in fresh water and migrate to the ocean but return to the fresh water when they reproduce. Image source

After hatching, wild salmon remain in the freshwater river for roughly two to three years before they make their way to the ocean. Once in the ocean, they grow to their full size and navigate back to their stream of birth to spawn. These fish miraculously find their way home using the earth’s magnetic field and their early fish-hood smells. Some even swim over 1,000 miles to their birthplace. After they spawn, many of them die or are eaten.

Wild Caught or Farmed

The salmon on your plate is either from a wild-capture fishery or a fish farm, otherwise known as aquaculture. Capturing salmon from the wild is much more sophisticated than a few men wielding several large fishing poles.

Commercial salmon fishermen use electronic fish finders, hydraulic equipment, and large nets in order to capture the most salmon possible in a given expedition. In fact, they have been so effective that many of the wild salmon fisheries are fished out. While many salmon are coming back throughout the East Coast river system, they are still protected and are only fished as catch and release. The largest population of Atlantic Salmon can be found off the coast of Maine. As a result, salmon in the Pacific Northwest are under the watchful eye of government regulators in the United States.

As the concern over depleting our natural wild resources has increased, there has also been a substantial focus on producing farmed salmon over the last few years. Today, roughly 95% of the salmon is farmed in Norway, Chile, Scotland, and Canada. Additionally, 70% of this farmed fish are grown by only fifteen producers. Aside from carp and tilapia, salmon is the third largest aquaculture species. In 2013, global aquaculture production of fish, crustaceans, and other species totaled 97 million tons. And to put that in perspective, global cattle weighed in at 64 million tons. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Salmon Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world – accounting for 70 percent of the market. This is three times higher than it was in 1980”. Over the past 13 years, salmon production has increased by 133% to two million tons, while wild-caught salmon has decreased by 53%.

What are the benefits of farmed salmon?

Raised and harvested responsibly, farmed salmon meet all the benefits of sustainable agriculture farming: good for the environment, and good for our health. Because of the high standards most farms uphold, these farmers ensure that the entire value chain from the fish feed to the ecosystem is taken into consideration.

What are farmed salmon fed?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Salmon Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world – accounting for 70 percent of the market. This is three times higher than it was in 1980”.

In aquacultures, the purpose of the nutrient-rich diet is to enable fish to maintain their health and reach maturity in three years. A key component in sustainable salmon farming is ensuring the amount of salmon harvested outweighs the amount of food the salmon in the farm consume. The feed to fish ration is 1:1 in farmed salmon versus 6:1 for wild salmon. One and a half pounds of food generally produces roughly a pound of salmon, as opposed to wild fish which need to eat six pounds of fish to gain one pound of weight. This is because the wild fish expend a lot of calories swimming many miles against strong currents.

Carnivorous fish, like salmon, are happy to eat – other fish. The ingredients used in fish feed have changed in recent years. Historically, the salmon feed was made up of fish meal, fish oil, and micronutrients. However, to maintain the right balance between catching fish and feeding fish today, some of the fish oil and fish meal is replaced with terrestrial raw materials such as canola, soybean oil, and vegetable protein sources. This substitution of fish oil is discussed because some people are concerned that the nutritional benefits of salmon will change.

However, even with the substitution of the marine ingredients, farmed salmon still provide more than enough omega-3 per portion. The health benefits of omega-3 capsules is yet another reason for the demand for fish oil – in fact, salmon is a much more efficient converter of omega–3 than the capsules. Luckily for all the omega-3 junkies, because of the nutrients fed to farmed fish, their omega-3 content is generally a little higher than those in the wild. So don’t be afraid of your farmed salmon dinner. It will provide you with the same health benefits as wild caught salmon.


You might be curious about the genetically engineered Aqua Advantage Salmon from AquaBounty. This is a case of taking the Atlantic salmon and inserting a growth-promoting gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon along with an ocean pout. The modified salmon will now grow year-round instead of only during the spring and summer. Market size can be reached in 16 to 18 months rather than the more typical three years. However, this fish is not yet on the market and is only grown in Panama. At the moment, the overall salmon industry is not leaping over the falls to embrace this fast-growing fish as they feel that selective breeding will ultimately produce the same result.

Do farmed salmon have more risk of disease?

Image credit: Patrick Pleul

Farmed salmon are raised in big open water netted pens about the size of a football field.

There are certainly challenges that present themselves in aquacultures, but unfortunately, there is an over-publicized fear of diseases and sea lice. It is believed that because of the threat of disease, farmed fish are given antibiotics to prevent the spread. However, antibiotics are not used in salmon farming practices! Instead of antibiotics, farmed fish are vaccinated early in their life. They are also bred to be hardy and resistant to disease. The one exception is for the bacterial disease, found only in Chile, called SRS. In response to this threat, many companies are working on launching a vaccine.

As for sea lice, while it is an issue, salmon farming has been accused of allowing sea lice infested salmon to escape and infect the wild salmon swimming nearby. The truth is that the wild cousins swimming nearby infect the farms. However, it is still an issue to manage for the farmer as well as a major consideration by consumers and NGOs alike. There are two main methods of treating sea lice. One is adding ‘pilot fish’ to the pens; they eat the sea lice off the salmon. The next is a treatment called SLICE, which is put into the fish feed to kill the lice if it is contracted. Of course, the use of SLICE is regulated and not used before the fish is harvested, thus it is not finding its way onto your dinner plate. While it is true that both sea lice and disease are enemies of farmed salmon, wild salmon are certainly not exempt either.

There are certainly challenges that present themselves in aquacultures, but unfortunately, there is an over-publicized fear of diseases.

Another fallacy of farmed salmon is that they are full of toxins, specifically polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). However, what we need to do is put wild salmon under the microscope. In fact, because wild salmon live longer and humans cannot control what these salmon eat, they often may have a higher level of unwanted substances in their system than that of a farm-raised salmon. Farmed fish have a controlled diet and life cycle and their lifespan is shorter.

If you’ve ever had a goldfish you know that the bowl can get pretty dirty and has to be cleaned regularly. Those opposed to fish farming apply the same logic to aquacultures. They argue the dirty water of the aquaculture somehow pollutes the surrounding water and transmits bacteria to humans. However, it behooves the farmer to maintain a farm with clean flowing water. Generally, the ratio is around 2.5% fish to 97.5% fresh water. If the water isn’t clean and fresh in the sea cages, the fish will become diseased, die and have to be discarded. Not the optimum result for the farmer. Additionally, the general practice is to leave the harvested pen empty for a period of three to six months to eliminate any possibility of cross-contamination.

The sophisticated technology is such that fish farmers can feed the fish exactly what they need to grow efficiently without excreting large amounts of waste into the ecosystem. This limits the possibility of excess feed spreading throughout the ecosystem as well. This also means that only a minimal amount of waste is flowing through the fish pens and spreading out to the bottom of the sea. This small amount of fish waste is actually a positive nutrient for kelp, prawns, crabs, and other sea creatures! AND in order to verify that the salmon are healthy and safe, the water inside and around the pens is frequently measured, tested, and regulated.

Sustainable Salmon = Wild and Farmed

It is important to know that not all salmon farms are created equal. So, how do you know the farmed salmon you are eating is safe and was raised sustainably? Is the salmon you eat certified to any standards?

In order to ensure that all farmed fish, and future fish, are raised in a healthy, clean manner, fifteen of the largest salmon companies from Norway, Chile, and Scotland recognized the need for a global certification process and created the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI). According to their mission statement, “the GSI is a leadership initiative by global farmed salmon producers, focused on making significant progress toward fully realizing a shared goal of providing a highly sustainable source of healthy protein to feed a growing population while minimizing our environmental footprint, and continuing to improve our social contribution.”

GSI has selected the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to monitor best practices and provide a certification label. The ASC assures you that farmed fish are raised in farms that abide by national and local laws; and that fish farmers conserve the ecosystem, protect the health of wild populations, use resources in an environmentally responsible manner, manage disease in an environmentally responsible manner, operate in a socially responsible manner, and are a good neighbor and conscientious citizen. These standards help to ensure we are getting healthy fish while promoting sustainable aquaculture.

For those of you who shop at Whole Foods, you know that they are also a proponent of farmed salmon and have their own “responsibly farmed 3rd party certification” where they partner with salmon farmers in Norway, Iceland, and Scotland.

On the other hand, how do you know that your wild salmon was caught responsibly? Have the fishermen followed the regulations on caught fish? Have they fished in areas where the fish are diminished? Is the eco-system healthy? Luckily, there are standards here too. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) “offers the world’s only wild-capture seafood certification and eco-labeling program that is consistent with international organizations.”