Striving for Sustainability

“Sustainability” is a common buzzword these days. People want to know if what they’re doing and what they’re eating is good for them, and also good for the planet. Oftentimes the sustainability conversation focuses solely on the environment, but there are two other equally important pillars of sustainability that tend to get overlooked: social and economic.

Sustainability is a balance of these three pillars: the environment (planet), social (people) and economic (profits).

Everything we do – from turning on the lights at home to driving to work (or even taking public transportation) to throwing out leftover food – has an impact on the environment. And yes, agriculture has an impact on the environment, too. But we must eat to survive. And we rely on farmers to bring nutritious, wholesome, sustainable food to our tables every day.

One of the most rewarding and humbling opportunities in my entire career has been visiting numerous farms and food production facilities all over the U.S. and beyond. I’ve seen dairy farms in my home state of Illinois, vegetable fields in California, rice fields in Mississippi, a poultry plant in Maryland, canola fields in Canada, cattle ranches in Texas and even salmon farms in Norway. I have learned so much through these experiences and am always eager for the opportunity to learn more, and to also share my learnings with others.

Recently, I attended an event with the Illinois Farm Families program. We toured global foodservice supplier OSI Group and then attended an interactive lunch and workshop at Marcel’s Culinary Experience. I had the pleasure of meeting some Illinois farmers and talking with them about the hard work they do every day to bring nutritious, sustainable food to our tables. I asked each of them to share some common myths or questions they often hear, and the facts or answers they want people to know.

Here’s what they had to say:

From L to R: Alan Adams, beef farmer; Drew Kuhn, pig farmer; JoAnn Adams, beef farmer; Sarah Lenkaitis, dairy farmer; Rosalie Trump, Illinois Farm Families.

Myth: It’s better for the cows to be out on grass.

Sarah Lenkaitis, dairy farmer

Lenkaitis dairy farm to table

Fact: While seeing cows grazing out on grass is picturesque, it comes with challenges – think flies, mud, humidity, just to name a few. The barn that houses our cows helps us keep them comfortable 365 days a year, no matter the weather conditions outside. The barn is temperature controlled and gives our cows closer access to feed, water and a clean, dry place to lay. By creating the optimal environment for them, it helps keep them healthy and productive.

Myth: If milk isn’t labeled organic, it contains antibiotics.

Fact: Every gallon of milk on the store shelf is free from antibiotics. We work tirelessly to keep our cows healthy. In the event that one of the cows is not feeling well, we diagnose and administer treatment under the supervision of our veterinarian. Sometimes we are able to help a cow with supportive therapies, such as probiotics and fluids, that do not require us to discard her milk. However, sometimes we need to use a prescribed antibiotic. Every antibiotic used includes a script that lists a milk withhold that we follow. Milk from the cow is discarded during this time. Once the withhold period is up, we can sample the cow’s milk and run an on-farm test to confirm her milk is free from antibiotics. When her test is negative for antibiotics, we will stop discarding her milk.

It’s not every day you get to roll up your sleeves and cook with a farmer!

We made Savory Asparagus and Gruyere Bread Pudding.

MYTH: Organic is Always Better

Alan Adams, beef farmer:

I’m the fifth generation in my family to farm on our land. I view the modern scientific production advances in chemistry and genetics as one of our greatest scientific achievements.

I think the most common misperception is the idea that organic is better. It seems like the organic label makes people believe it’s the gold standard both for consumer safety and the environment. I’d like to share two specific examples where I’m not sure that’s the case – one for soil health and the other for animal health.

Soil health: Much of my work has been trying to restore some of the productivity that was lost by the previous four generations of my family that farmed organically because that was all that was available. Without modern herbicides we were forced to control weeds mechanically, which left the ground and soil exposed to erosion. Now that we are able to leave our erosive ground untilled, we have improved our soil’s ability to hold nutrients and water. The resulting yield increases have been dramatic, which ultimately helps us create a more sustainable food system.

Animal health: While I certainly believe organically raised beef can be as safe as conventionally raised beef, the inability to use any parasite control in organically raised beef is very concerning to me from an animal welfare perspective. All animals, including pastured cattle, are susceptible to a variety of internal and external parasites that not only affect production but also cause pain and discomfort for the animal.

Myth: Pork has added hormones.

Drew Kuhn, pig farmer:

Fact: Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Did You Know? Pigs have nutritionists, much like humans have dietitians! Their feed is mainly a combination of corn and soybean meal, both from crops that we grow plentifully here in Illinois. Their feed ingredients and rations change up to 10 times during their lifetime to coincide with their stage of growth. The rations and ingredients are heavily monitored to ensure the pigs are getting what they need, when they need it, to create a nutritious product for the end consumer.

Farmers are the original sustainability experts. They balance the three pillars of sustainability every single day. They are continuously learning about what tools and technology could result in farming practices that are better for the planet. We rely on them to produce nutritious, wholesome food to nourish people. And, if they can’t make at least a small profit, they cannot sustain their farm and pass it down to the next generation.

I think most people have no idea how hard farmers work and how much they care for the land and animals. I wish more people had the opportunity to visit with farmers, and also to look to farmers for the sustainability solutions they are putting into practice every day.

Melissa Dobbins

Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE

About Melissa

I’m a dietitian who shares realistic solutions to help people enjoy their food with health in mind.

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