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Get your meat hoodie, go to Woolworths

Hart Attacks: A new Stanford study shows “going green” impacts farming practices

If you are looking for a conversation starter next time you’re at a vegan dinner party, a friend sent me a link to these attractively designed sweatshirts from the U.S. The Gamiss company makes a wide range of hoodie styles and patterns, but this particular one looks like real meat — unlike some art and fashion statements over the years that featured clothing made from real steaks, this jacket is just a fabric pattern.

The day I looked it was on sale half price at US$17.50. Can you imagine how horrified people would be in many circles, but especially in non-meat circles if a person walked in wearing this meat hoodie? The size chart says they go up to 2XL, but in my experience even that can be a crap shoot. XL seems to be a subjective term, depending on the benchmark size of the “average” size person. I won’t buy one because people would probably say, “here comes an over-stuffed pork tenderloin,” but the devil in me thinks even the $35 full price would be well worth the shock value.

If you want to see more styles, or details on the meat hoodies pay a visit to the Gamiss website.

Probably, in more important news, it was interesting to read a report from the California-based Stanford University on a study they did looking at whether the push from grocery retailers for more sustainably-produced food products is having an impact on farming practices. I learned several things, but short answer — in this study they found it did.

A couple things stood out in this article. The researchers couldn’t find a North American grocery retailer willing to participate in the study. So much for open, honest, and transparent, connecting-with-consumer and industry business practices.

The researchers wanted to look at how a grocery retailer’s advertised commitment and programs to work with farmers with sound and sustainable farming practices — good environmental stewardship — impacted general farming practices. No North American retailer was willing to give Stanford researchers access to talk to their suppliers and fully understand their sustainability program. Interesting.

You can still find a Woolworths

So the researchers worked with a large South African grocery/food retailer Woolworths Holding Ltd. (Woolworths). That was another interesting thing — who knew there was still a Woolworths company in the world? In South Africa, Woolworths is a large, high end, clothing and grocery retailer. It was never affiliated with Woolworths in North America or Europe.

Woolworths gave researchers full access, giving them total academic freedom to evaluate their sustainability program and publish results.

The researchers found that Woolworths’ large-scale fruit, vegetable and flower growers follow more environmental management practices when compared both over time and with a random sample of farms certified by the food industry’s global environmental standard for farm management, known as GLOBALG.A.P. The world’s most widely implemented farm certification program, GLOBALG.A.P., enforces environmental rules for farmers and performs annual third-party audits of production.

Woolworths has a Farming for the Future program. It combines annual auditor feedback with the individual needs of farmers, rather than imposing definitive rules. Farms are evaluated on sustainability criteria each year, including soil management, water use, biodiversity, waste disposal, pest management, carbon footprint and environmental laws. The company also employs auditors trained as agronomists, soil scientists or environmental scientists.

“According to one farmer, other auditors will drive into the farm and say, ‘Nice trees you’ve got there,’” says Tannis Thorlakson, lead researcher on the project (Thorlakson is California-based, but her family has roots in Manitoba). “But when the Farming for the Future auditor comes in, they drive up and they say, ‘Tell me about those trees. Those are an invasive species and they’re probably affecting your water table. Why aren’t we working on a management plan to deal with those?’”

Making a difference

“The auditors are building relationships and helping farmers improve their practices,” Thorlakson said. And she found that while producers supplying products to Woolworths were adopting more sustainable production practices, she also found it was rubbing off on others. “Conventional farmers are now using cover crops, which is a really hard practice to get farmers to take up but which creates long-term environmental benefits,” she says. “We’re seeing big shifts in farming practices, which is really exciting.”

“If indeed these company-led policies are effective and able to transform their entire supply chains, then they can potentially transform land-use practices worldwide and have a very positive impact on the environment.”

So this study found if Farmer Jones is adopting sustainable farming practices to supply products to a specific market, there is good chance that Farmer Smith across the road, seeing that those practices work, might adopt similar production practices on their farm.

One other perhaps perplexing element as I did some light online research for this column — no wonder it is hard for consumers to get a handle on the facts about the issue. Is modern agriculture destroying the environment?

Even the Stanford University report opened with a huge statement I had to question: “Agriculture is one of the largest global environmental polluters, driving deforestation and contributing an estimated 30 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.”

And then you look at a few other websites and you come across a statement from the World Wildlife Fund: “Unsustainable agricultural and aquaculture practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.” What are the details and facts behind that statement?

If you want a visual of the impact of agriculture on the environment and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions there are roughly two million brightly coloured pie charts on the internet that to me carried a wide range of conflicting messages. Some showed agriculture contributing to 75 and 80 per cent of greenhouse gasses, another for the U.S. showed livestock contributing 4.2 per cent and overall agriculture nine per cent.

David Layzell, an energy researcher at the University of Calgary, says overall agriculture represents about 12 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps all these statements and figures and pie charts have to be qualified in terms of what region and what type of agricultural activity. I just know it is confusing. And if I find it confusing, and I am seriously looking for the definitive answer, imagine how confusing it is for a consumer casually wondering if wheat and meat are destroying the planet.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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