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What does "Sustainable" and "Ethical" Mean to You?

Posted by Julia Smith on

So apparently we now sell the same product as A&W. I came upon this sign >> while fuelling up at a gas station that had an A&W in it. It got me thinking. If beef that has been finished on GMO grains for 120 days in a feed lot is sustainable and ethical, those words don't mean much these days. Dr. John Church (Thompson Rivers University; BC Regional Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability & one of the presenters at the COABC conference last week) said in no uncertain terms that this exact practice is a form of, and I quote, "animal abuse."

There is a tremendous amount left up to interpretation when it comes to defining sustainable, ethical livestock production. Many well-meaning consumers would be shocked to learn that much of the meat being marketed as "sustainable" or "ethical" is produced indoors using GMO feed, antibiotics and confinement systems like gestation crates. There is no system of accountability in place when it comes to these types of claims and increasingly, the spirit of sustainability is being co-opted by conventional producers, making it extremely difficult for consumers to make food choices that reflect their values. Since there is no certifying body defining the words "sustainable" or "ethical," I thought it might be a good idea to lay out what those words mean to us here at Urban Digs. 

I believe that giving animals liberal access to a natural, outdoor environment is the only way to meet their unique physiological needs. A small concrete slab adjoining a large barn does not constitute a natural, outdoor environment. I believe that the extreme confinement we see in the case of the hens who produce the vast majority of our eggs and the gestation crates used in most pork production are clearcut cases of animal cruelty. I believe that animals should be fed a diet appropriate to their unique digestive systems. For example, ruminant animals like cows cannot properly digest grain, certainly not in the large quantities they are fed in conventional beef production. Consumers must make the distinction between "grass-fed" and "grass-finished" beef. All beef eats some grass but most of it is finished for 120 days on grain. Consumers have to do their homework and use their best judgement.

There are organizations certifying animal welfare, like the SPCA for example, so asking if a farm is SPCA certified is a good place to start. But there are plenty of small scale farms producing to SPCA standards or better. I don't necessarily agree with all of the SPCA's certification standards. For example, they will certify a flock of chickens that never gets to go outside and the feeding of large quantities of grain to ruminant animals. But as far as I can tell, they have the highest animal welfare standards of any certifying body. Our laying hens are already SPCA certified. We're going to go ahead and get the pigs certified as well. It isn't perfect, but at least a consumer can get a clear description of the animal welfare standards required for SPCA certification. 

In my opinion, it is not sustainable to feed animals a diet based on grains being produced with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds. But currently, most organic feed contains ingredients imported from China & India so that isn't sustainable either. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, we have decided to feed as little commercial feed as possible, taking advantage of the abundant food waste generated as a byproduct of the human food system. Spent brewery grains, over-ripe & imperfect fruits & vegetables, stale bakery goods and whey from cheese-making make up a large component of our animal's diets. When we do feed commercial feed, we will source the most local feed possible and try to avoid GMOs. Our feed will always be unmedicated and free of animal byproducts. 

I love getting emails from folks who want to know more about how we raise/feed our animals. At the end of the day, it is the consumer who can drive change in the industry. Please keep asking questions. And don't stop at one. For example,  if the meat is free-range, ask how much time the animals actually spend outside and what their outdoor environment is like. You'd be surprise what you can get away with and still use the term "free-range." When buying pork, after you ask if the pigs are free-range, please ask if the farm confines sows in gestations crates. The conventional farming industry knows that you care about these sorts of things. Everyone is marketing "ethical & sustainable" meat these days. It's up to you to make sure that producers & suppliers making these claims are truly raising animals in a way that reflects your personal values. 

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