Fresh Green Bean Casserole: Look Ma, No Cans!

right out of the oven, the sauce is pretty loose, but it thickens as it sits or after being refrigerated

CSA 2010 Epilogue

I made this a couple of months ago when I was still getting pounds of gorgeous, fresh, gigantic green beans from Needle Lane Farms every week. However, it would be tasty even with far less gorgeous beans. Really, the entire point of green bean bean casserole is to disguise green beans that have been rendered essentially flavorless by canning by drowning them in a mushroom-infused béchamel and topping them with crispy fried onions (a combination that could make just about anything taste good). I threw this version together one night when I had some milk and mushrooms on hand, and I was sick of eating all those gorgeous, fresh green beans sautéed with garlic or steamed and dressed with oil and vinegar. I wanted something less summery, less virtuous, and frankly, a little less like green beans.

The title of the entry isn’t meant to imply that the can-based version is bad. I love the recipe Dorcas Reilly came up with when she was the head of Campbell’s Test Kitchen in the 1950s. It may have been a naked ploy to get people to buy more Campbell’s products, but marketing alone couldn’t have turned it into a holiday you can deep-fry your own shallots, or if you have access to an asian market, you might be able to get them in large quantities for cheap; also great for topping bagels and encrusting basically anything savoryclassic. Reilly and the test kitchen came up with dozens of recipes, most of which would now be candidates for the Gallery of Regrettable Food. But even though green bean casserole is a quintessential 1950s mush-from-cans kind of recipe, it’s also essentially a classic gratin. I can’t think of a better way to make lifeless canned vegetables not just edible but delicious than to submerge them in a savory, roux-thickened milk sauce (which is all Campbell’s condensed cream soups really are). The basic formula—condensed cream soup + canned vegetable + crunchy topping—would probably be pretty tasty no matter what flavor of soup, kind of vegetable, or crunchy topping you used. Cream of onion with canned peas topped with bread crumbs. Cream of celery with canned succotash topped with crushed saltines. It may never be a culinary revelation, but it’s hard to think of an easier, faster, or tastier way to make a vegetable dish from a handful of ingredients that keep indefinitely in your pantry.

The one real benefit to making a dish like this from scratch—aside from trying to use up CSA produce—is having the ability to customize it. Personally, I like just enough nutmeg in my béchamel to make it a little spicy. I like my mushrooms minced so finely I will never have to bite into one. I like my green beans with a little structural integrity but soft enough to cut with a fork. And for the topping, I’ll take fried shallots over French’s onions any day.

Have It Your Way

Some other variations you might consider, especially if you’re catering to a restrictive-eater this holiday season:

Vegan/Lactose-free: Use a non-dairy milk (Chocolate & Zucchini reports having good success with oat milk in a similar casserole) and substitute vegetable oil or shortening for the butter.

Gluten-free: Substitute rice flour for the wheat flour OR instead of starting with a roux, heat the butter and milk to a simmer and then whisk in a slurry made from 2 T. arrowroot powder or cornstarch combined with 2 T. milk or water and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened.

Mushroom-free: Leave out the mushrooms. Instead, add an onion cooked to a deep golden brown in 4-8 tablespoons of butter over low heat (which should take 30-50 minutes to get it really deep French Onion Soup brown), or any kind of cured pork product (guanciale or pancetta if you want to be trendy), or 4-5 tablespoons of nutritional yeast, or a cup of shredded, sharp cheese to the hot milk.

Lower-carb: Substitute cream and/or nut milk for the whole milk (1/2 cream and 1/2 cashew milk might be good) and thicken the sauce with a cup of shredded cheese, 2 tempered eggs, or 1/2 t. guar gum or xantham gum sprinkled over the heated milk while whisking.

Lower-fat/lower-calorie: Omit the butter and flour and use skim milk instead of whole. Heat the milk almost to a simmer and then add a slurry made from 4 T. arrowroot powder or cornstarch combined with 4 T. milk or water, stirring constantly. Cook for a few minutes, still stirring, until thickened.

Pork It Up: Fry up about 1/2 lb bacon or salt pork until the fat is rendered and the meat is browned. Drain the meat on paper towels and use about 4 T. of the rendered fat as the basis for the roux (reserve the rest for another use). Dice or crumble the cooked meat into small pieces and mix it into the casserole before baking.

French It Up: Waste some pricey Use haricots verts and call it “haricots verts gratin” instead of “green bean casserole.” (That’s AHR-eee-ko VEHR GRAH-tin).

Quicker: If you want homemade taste without having to fuss with fresh green beans, use frozen green beans—steam them on the stovetop or microwave just until thawed while you’re making the white sauce.Happy Thanksgiving! 

Recipe: Fresh Green Bean Casserole

Ingredients:green beans seem so simple, but all the trimming is such a pain in the ass; this is the main argument for using frozen/canned: it is so much quicker

  • 4 cups fresh green beans
  • 4 T. butter
  • 4 T. all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 8 oz. shitake mushrooms (or cremini, portabella, porcini, morel—if dried, rehydrate)
  • 1/2 fresh nutmeg (or 1/2 t. ground)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4-1/2 cup fried shallots or onions
  • 1/4-1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Heat 1-2 cups of water in a large pot with a steamer basket if you have one (if you don’t, it won’t make a big difference).

2. Wash and trim the green beans, and cut them into bite-sized pieces. Add to the prepared pot and cook: 2-3 minutes, or just until they’re a bright green (if you want them to be crisp), 5-7 minutes or just until you can pierce them with a fork (if you want them to be tender-crisp), 8-12 minutes or until you can pierce them easily (if you want them to be tender).

steamingdrainingrouxbechamel with mushrooms  

3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium skillet. Add the flour and stir to make a smooth paste (or “roux”). Cook for 2-3 minutes or until beginning to brown slightly.

4. Gradually whisk in the milk, starting with a few tablespoons at a time and mixing until the liquid is fully incorporated before adding more.

5. Slice, dice, or mince the mushrooms and add to the flour-thickened milk mixture (i.e. a béchamel). Bring to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

6. Butter a casserole dish, combine the milk mixture and green beans and add them to the dish, and sprinkle the fried shallots or onions and the almonds, if using, on top.

7. Bake 30-35 minutes or until the casserole is thick and bubbling and the onions are beginning to brown.

beans & bechamel, ready to top & bake This is comfort, reborn as sophistication. But without losing the comfort part.

The Myth of the Grass-fed Pig, Part II: Cornphobia

Part I of “The Myth of the Grass-fed Pig” is here, previous posts related to Food, Inc. are here and here.

Posted on ffffound.com in February 2010

The Evil of Corn” by Gary Taxali

Professor Seabury isn’t alone in thinking non-ruminants should be fed grass and only grass (although he’s probably rare among pig farmers who think so). The people at Castlemaine Farms, a small vegetable and poultry operation in North Carolina, got so sick of being asked if their chickens were 100% grass-fed that they posted the following on their blog:

click for original entry

The economics of animal agriculture are a little more complicated than grass=free and grain=$ (more about that another day), but I suspect the obsession with grass-fed animals has less to do with the economics of feed than it does with a two-part lesson a lot of readers absorb from The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc.: 1) corn is in everything—the contemporary American food system relies on corn’s uniquely efficient carbon-fixing system to produce historically-unprecedented food surpluses that they then turn into a dazzling array of products* and 2) that’s bad—nutritionally, ecologically, aesthetically, and morally. Or, as Troy Swain puts it even more succinctly, “Corn is Badass and Creepy”:

Posted on the livejournal "uberdionysus" in March 2007

Page 2 in a 5-part series on The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Swain does a pretty good job of illustrating why corn is “badass,” but it’s sort of unclear why it’s “creepy.” That’s what I’ll try to explain in this entry—why would anyone think that it’s a bad thing for pigs and chickens to eat corn? Why are otherwise seemingly-sane people convinced that eating corn on the cob or popcorn at the movies is some kind of transgression—something they should avoid or feel guilty about? What drives cornphobia?

*For Adorno & Horkheimer fans: this seems a lot like the argument that the Culture Industry produces what appears to be wide range of options, creating the illusion of democratic choice and individuality, but they’re really all the same. Actually, there are dozens of parallels between “The Culture Industry” and Omnivore’s Dilemma, but that’s not the most blog-friendly tangent.

First, a look at the “reasons” that cornphobes themselves give for avoiding corn, none of which make any sense, so I’m calling them “un-reasons.” These all come from the most stunning example of cornphobia I’ve come across—an e-mail exchange between the editors at Gourmet magazine (RIP) about whether it would be a good idea to do a summer feature on sweet corn. The Online Editor started the thread:

Christy Harrison: A couple folks here in the web area are saying they now tend to avoid corn, even at the farmers market, because of all the negative press lately around industrially processed corn (and because they figure they already get enough corn in their diets in processed food). So I wanted to see what you guys think: Do you avoid buying fresh corn because it’s in so much processed food (or for other reasons)? Or do you think that’s silly and the distinction between farmers market corn and Big Corn is obvious? I’m trying to see if there could be a larger story here.

Note that there’s no debate about whether “Big Corn” is evil—that’s apparently just commonsense in the world of Gourmet editors. The only question on the table is whether fresh corn purchased from a farmer’s market is also evil. In lieu of assigning someone to actually write an article about the potential “larger story” being sniffed out, they decided to just publish the replies, most of which essentially said, “yes, that’s silly.” However, a few people expressed reservations:

Un-Reason #1: It’s Nutritionally Worthless

Azon Juan: I hear so much bad news about corn that I don’t see why I should eat it, and I’m positive it’s getting into my diet in other ways that I don’t know about. I think of corn as an unnecessary vegetable that doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.

Juan seems to be rejecting the distinction between sweet corn and commodity corn, unless I missed some kind of “bad news” about corn on the cob. Although it’s true that people can and do survive without eating corn, which I guess makes it technically “unnecessary,” that seems like a strange allegation to make about one of the staple crops of most Native American diets and world’s third-largest food crop. I mean, sure, it’s hard to think of any single food that any single individual couldn’t survive without—as nutritious as kale might be, I’m sure lots of people live long, healthy lives without touching the stuff—but if there’s any food our entire food system can’t do without, it’s corn.

"Corn" by Natalie Dee, posted January 2006. Click for url.Nor is it clear what standards he’s using when he claims corn lacks “nutritional value.” Even if you don’t count carbohydrates as “nutrients,” a 1-cup serving of sweet corn contains over 15% of an adult’s RDA of vitamin B1, folate, dietary fiber, vitamin C, phosphorus, manganese, and vitamin B5 (according to WHFoods). It also provides 9 essential amino acids, which make a complete protein when combined with beans. In terms of calories and glycemic load, it’s comparable to sweet potatoes or brown rice, which are often portrayed as “health foods.” A 150 gram serving of corn contains 129 kcal and has an estimated glycemic load of 17; 150 grams of sweet potato contain 135 kcal and a GL of 17; 150 g brown rice has 167 kcal and a GL of 18 (according to Harvard Medical School and CalorieKing). Corn may not be the most nutrient-dense food available, but as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to believe it to be significantly less valuable than any other starchy vegetable or whole grain.

However, the nutritional content seems to be a secondary concern for Juan anyway. That’s merely corn’s lack of a saving grace. Something else seems to be responsible for making him think eating corn is worse than a missed opportunity to consume something nutritionally optimal, but instead something actively detrimental, something to avoid if at all possible. His sense that “it’s getting into my diet in other ways that I don’t know about” makes corn sound ominous, not just an “unnecessary vegetable,” but a dangerous contaminant.

Un-Reason #2: It’s Frankenfood

Juan notes that he also avoids HFCS and corn-fed beef (the two primary sources of corn-based calories in the U.S., which makes me wonder where he thinks rogue corn is sneaking into his diet—maltodextrin?) and concludes by saying that the only corn he consciously consumes is “the corn I can’t stay away from when I go to the movies,” implying that even that is a transgression he would resist if he could. Harrison picks up on that in her reply:

Christy Harrison: Yes, the whole popcorn thing—I have other friends who talk about having “corn guilt” when they eat popcorn, too. Or when they have fresh corn at someone’s house and then learn that it came from a big-box store (which I guess means it might be full of pesticides or could have been shipped from far away). To some extent it really is guilt by association, because most of the “bad” corn is in processed foods, not in fresh corn. But there is plenty of genetically modified sweet corn around, too (the kind that you eat on the cob)—and you can’t just assume that your local farmer doesn’t use GMO seed, because some small-scale farmers do.

So on the one hand, Harrison admits that feeling guilty about eating popcorn or fresh corn is irrational (although she confusingly conflates people feeling “guilty” about eating corn with corn being “guilty”—whether it’s truly “bad” or just has the misfortune of being related to the true villain). But then she tries to offer one last defense of sweet corn avoidance by raising the specter of genetic engineering.

"Evil Corn" by Dianne Piepan. Posted September 2007. Click for url. There may be good reasons to be concerned about GMO foods. It’s true that seed patents have been wielded like weapons against farmers who want to store seed from one harvest to plant the next year or who happen to farm downwind from someone who uses GMO seed and end up with some of it growing in their fields. It’s also true that we don’t yet know all the possible risks of moving genes across species for human health or for the environment. On the other hand, GMO foods might also be healthier or more environmentally sustainable—rice with genes borrowed from carrots could offer a cheap source of vitamin A for malnourished populations, herbicide-resistant crops could reduce the need for tilling and help preserve topsoil, and etc. Either way, it’s not at all clear why the fact that some small-scale farmers grow genetically modified corn would make all corn evil.

The threat of GMO sweet corn is a red herring that Harrison invokes to take advantage of the vague dread they inspire, which is based less on facts or reason than an emotional response many people have to the idea of scientists tinkering with food at the level of its DNA. She’s basically saying: maybe people are justified in having a vague, irrational dread about corn because they have a vague, irrational dread about GMOs. Like Juan’s claims about corn’s nutritional worthlessness, that’s just a flimsy justification for cornphobia, not the real cause.

Un-Reason #3: It’s Somehow Related to Global Warming or Scary Agricultural Practices

The most perplexing replies came from Food Editor Ian Knauer:

Ian Knauer: The farmer that takes hay from us in PA also farms corn in nearby farms. They no longer plow or rotate crops. They harvest the corn in the fall, then mow down the stalks to a foot high. They inject the soil with nitrogen and other chemicals. The fields sit like that, skeletonized, all winter. In the spring they inject new corn seed and do it again. Nothing else will grow in the fields; no weeds, no wild grasses, nothing…
(After being asked if the corn is for human consumption:) I believe the corn this farmer grows is for ethanol production. But that’s not the point. On a related and somewhat ironic side note, I met an organic-heirloom corn farmer in Mexico who told me that in his lifetime, the corn he grows has been affected by climate change. 25 years ago it took 15 days to ripen; now it takes eight.

Knauer doesn’t ever say what exactly is the point of describing the nitrogen-dependent, weed-free production of corn for ethanol. And I’m not entirely sure how global warming-accelerated corn ripening is either “related” to the safety or desirability of sweet corn or “ironic.” Instead, what this seems like to me is Knauer attempting to justify his vague sense that corn is bad by gesturing to any kind of scary-sounding, “unnatural,” sterile, unsustainable-looking thing he can think of, whether it has anything at all to do with edible sweet corn or not. 

The Real Reason?: The Leap from “It’s Everywhere!” to “It’s Evil!”

Natalie Dee Equal Sign Dianne Piepan

Okay, confession time: it’s not just the fact that none of the reasons cited by the cornphobes in the Gourmet e-mail exchange make any sense that makes me think cornphobia is essentially a hysterical response to Michael Pollan. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a former cornphobe, myself. After my first encounter with Pollan in the NYTimes Magazine, I was freaked out enough to start checking labels for HFCS. For about a year, I even avoided niblets.

Pollan never actually advises readers to stop eating corn, nor does he say that sources of whole corn are bad. He acknowledges that descendants of the Maya sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people” because it’s such a central part of their diets Nevertheless, the reason Troy Swain can summarize the first section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma as “Corn is Badass and Creepy” is because Pollan definitely implies that the prevalence of corn in contemporary American diets, largely in the form of processed foods, is a bad thing. For one, he says, we are even more corn dependent than Mexicans:

The higher the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in a person’s flesh, the more corn has been in his diet—or in the diet of the animals he or she ate….Researchers who have compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn. (Omnivore’s p. 19-23)

But so what? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, says Pollan, that depends:

If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population….

If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages: not cheap food exactly (for the consumer ultimately pays the added cost of processing), but cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease. (Omnivore’s p. 117)

That passage (and the myriad other places this argument has appeared since, including Food, Inc., King Corn, Pollan’s subsequent books and a thousand blog and message board posts) is what I believe to be the real origin of cornphobia. Pollan vilifies corn as merely a source of “cheap calories” (“nutritionally worthless" anyone?) and claims the corn-dependent food system is defensible only if you’re a greedy capitalist who can pass on the “hidden costs” of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to the consumer.

But We Like “Cheap Calories”

I don’t mean this in a Vincent Vega, “Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good,” way—cheap calories may often be good-tasting, but more relevant for Pollan’s argument is the fact they are often ecologically more efficient than “expensive calories.” 

The real irony is that elsewhere Pollan celebrates “cheap calories.” His “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables” mantra and his campaign for "sun food agriculture" are partly a liberal elite brand of weight-loss advice/anti-obesity campaign, but they’re also a prescription for eating “low on the food chain” for the sake of the environment. In the passage I just quoted from Omnivore’s, he goes on to say that from the perspective of people on the “lower end of the world’s economic ladder,” the corn-dependent American diet is “unconscionable” and an “unalloyed disaster,” largely based on the efficiency argument for vegetarianism.

But as Pollan argues, corn is a uniquely efficient plant—no other food can produce as many calories as fast on a given plot of fertile soil with ample sun. According to that logic, if you were trying to eat with optimal efficiency and you lived in an area with ample plots of fertile soil, you would still want to avoid corn-fed beef, but you might actually want to eat as much corn as humanly possible—which, in light of the traditional Meso-American idea that humans are “corn walking,” would seem to be quite a lot.

Conclusion: The Omnivore’s Delusion?

Pollan accuses “us” (a sneaky word that clearly doesn’t include him) of confusing “corn-the-food” with “corn-the-commodity” (Omnivore’s p. 58), a confusion he seems to want to clear up. What seems significant to me about cornphobia and the myth of grass-fed pigs and chickens is that they suggest that at least for some readers, he failed. Instead of convincing them that there are “subtle but crucial” distinctions in the kinds and uses of corn, he merely shifts their confusion from the mistaken belief that all corn is innocent to the equally-flawed belief that all corn is evil. And I hesitate to call this a simple misinterpretation because:

1) It’s so widespread—just look at the art in this entry, almost all of which I’m certain was inspired by Pollan. It even affects people deeply involved in the topic, who ought to know better, like the co-creators of King Corn, a deeply Pollan-inspired documentary. While touring to promote the film, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney went on a corn-free diet and exhorted others to take the “corn free challenge” (sweet corn was exempt, corn-fed pork and chicken was not). Afterwards, Curt was disappointed to find that his “corn carbon” content had only dropped from 52% to 39% and Culinate published the following exchange with the scientist who tested him:

Curt: Have you ever tested anyone who didn’t have a corn signal at all?

Dr. Macko: Well, there was Oetzi the Iceman. There was no corn in Europe 5,000 years ago, no C4 grasses at all, so he didn’t have any corn.

Curt: Wow!

Dr. Macko: He’s your aspiration. You want to be Oetzi.

Even though there’s no reason why being 39% or 52% or hell, even 99% “corn carbon” would necessarily be a bad thing.

2) It accurately reflects the emotional tenor of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. if not their precise argument. People come away from the book and the film thinking they’ve been “enlightened,” when really, they’ve just been scared.

The panic about HFCS, the idea that farmers feeding grain to pigs and chickens are “doing something wrong” (and the occasional arrogance to insist on it even when farmers point out that pigs & chickens can’t survive on grass alone), the idea that corn on the cob and popcorn are transgressions against the new Church of Food—these are symptoms of a subculture of eaters who aren’t more “conscious,” they’re just more hysterical.

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig

Previously in this series: Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket and Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous?

Pigs at High Farms in South Carolina, which are rotated between the field and forest and probably do eat some grass. Pigs can be grass-fed in the same way that humans can be spinach-fed. Greens can make up a small percentage of our total caloric intake, but if we tried to survive on them alone, we'd starve.

When Pigs Fly Eat Grass 

From his profile on the School of Social Work, click for page The organizers of the free showing of Food, Inc. I attended last spring invited a few speakers to lead a discussion after the film over a vegetarian dinner. One of them was Dr. Brett Seabury, an Emeritus Professor of Social Work who has decided to spend his retirement raising cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens “naturally.” He showed us some pictures of his animals, and seemed especially eager to impress upon us how grass-dependent his whole operation is. His cows and sheep eat grass (unsurprising). His chickens eat grass, although that can’t be all they eat. Chickens can only get 30-35% of their calories from grass and other forage like clover and alfalfa, according to multiple sources including food movement demi-god Joel Salatin. If Seabury isn’t feeding his chickens grain or table scraps, they must be surviving primarily on insects, grubs, and seeds.

But his pigs, Seabury seemed ashamed to admit, still survive primarily on grain-based feed. They eat grass, too, he promised, and he said he was trying to increase the amount of grass in their diets. However, he admitted that he wasn’t nearly as “advanced” as a friend of his who raises a  “special” breed of pigs entirely on grass. And if there were such a thing—a pig who could eat only grass—that would be pretty special. As I mentioned in passing in the last recipe I posted, pigs are extraordinarily efficient at producing meat in terms of speed and pounds of meat produced/pounds of feed consumed. According to Marvin Harris’s “The Abominable Pig”:

Of all domesticated mammals, pigs possess the greatest potential for swiftly and efficiently changing plants into flesh. Over its lifetime, a pig can convert 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat compared with 13 percent for sheep and a mere 6.5 percent for cattle. A piglet can gain a pound for every three to five pounds it eats while a calf needs to eat ten pounds to gain one. A cow needs nine months to drop a single calf, and under modern conditions a calf needs another four months to reach four hundred pounds. But less than four months after insemination, a single sow can give birth to eight or more piglets, each of which after another six months can weigh over four hundred pounds.

However, as he notes later, there’s a crucial difference between the feed-to-meat alchemy performed by the pig and the kind performed by its barnyard pals:

Cattle, sheep, and goats thrive on items like grass, straw, hay, stubble, bushes, and leaves—feeds whose high cellulose content renders them unfit for human consumption even after vigorous boiling. Rather than compete with humans for food, the ruminants further enhanced agricultural productivity by providing dung for fertilizer and traction for pulling plows. And they were also a source of fiber and felt for clothing, and of leather for shoes and harnesses…. Feed [pigs] on wheat, maize, potatoes, soybeans, or anything else low in cellulose, and pigs will perform veritable miracles of transubstantiation; feed them on grass, stubble, leaves, or anything high in cellulose, and they will lose weight.

From an ad for Honeywell by The Q Group, click for full adRuminants can turn inedible vegetation into food thanks to their constant chewing (or ruminating) and their multiple stomachs, which are like a series of fermentation vats full of bacteria that help break down all those fibers and starches. Pigs just turn food into slightly-more-delicious food. And they do it at the cost of 65% of the feed’s initial caloric value, which is used to keep the pig warm and power all of its piggy activities like wallowing and rooting. To make matters worse, pigs aren’t really good for anything but producing meat. They aren’t suited for milking or shearing or pulling plows, and they don’t lay eggs. Even if it were slightly less efficient, a pig that could perform a grass-to-meat transformation would be the porcine equivalent of The Philosopher’s Stone. Or a bacon-producing version of the legendary golden egg-laying goose. 

The Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism

The pig equation (Pork calories = .35 x Pig feed calories) is essentially the basis for one of the main arguments in favor of vegetarianism. It was the reason I stopped eating meat as a teenager after absorbing the basics of High School Biology, and although I’ve never actually read Frances Moore Lappé’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, my understanding is that it’s also the basis for her argument, which has inspired countless environmentally-concerned omnivores to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of meat in their diets. In terms of sheer caloric efficiency, meat sucks.

When Lappé started doing the research for Diet at the library at UC Berkeley, she discovered that it takes 21.4 pounds of feed protein to produce 1 pound of beef protein, 8 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of pork, 5.5: 1 for chicken, and 4.4: 1 for milk (paraphrased by Warren Belasco in his brilliant Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food). And even if those numbers can be nudged in the right direction by more efficient production systems (like battery-cage egg-laying operations, which require less feed per egg than free range or pastured system), they’re never going to get even close to 1:1 because animals will always have to use a significant portion of the calories they eat to keep themselves alive. This was what the units on photosynthesis and respiration taught me: plants are machines for making energy and cows are machines for burning it. Eating meat seemed wasteful, short-sighted, and maybe even outright ethically wrong in light of global hunger & food shortages.

And on top of the caloric inefficiency, domesticated animals also require fresh water, another limited resource (pending affordable desalination methods), and their waste produces gasses that contribute to rising global temperatures. Large farm operations, which is where the vast majority of our meat and animal products come from, also use mechanized systems for feeding, lighting, sewage flushing, ventilation, heating and cooling, all of which generate even more carbon emissions. They also depend on fossil fuel-driven transport to move the feed, animals, and products around at various stages of growth and processing. And to add insult to injury, something like 70% of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to make way for pastures where animals or their feed can be raised. (Here’s typical example of this argument in Time magazine).Vegetarians have been all up in Al Gore's business for not becoming a radical vegan. Fairlie, who I discuss below, challenges the oft-cited 18% stat on animal-produced greenhouse gasses, see his book for more. Image from Allvoices.com, click for more

But as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. (I know, shocker, right? The world isn’t as simple as I thought at 18! Who would have guessed?)

In Defense of the Pig

If the pig were really such a bad caloric bargain, it never would have made it as a domesticated animal. Pigs would have been prohibitively expensive to raise—and, indeed, in areas like the Middle East, they were. Not for all time—there’s evidence that pigs had been domesticated in the areas that are now Jordan, Israel, and Iraq sometime before the early Neolithic period. However, as the human population density increased, nomadic people settled down, forests were destroyed to make way for agriculture, and the grazing land proceeded to become desert, pigs became prohibitively expensive. Marvin Harris again:

The pig had been domesticated for one purpose only, namely to supply meat. As ecological conditions became unfavorable for pig raising, there was no alternative function which could redeem its existence. The creature became not only useless, but worse than useless—harmful, a curse to touch or merely to see—a pariah animal.

He contrasts this with the case of the cow in India, which was subject to some of the same ecological changes—deforestation, erosion, desertification—but which became more useful than ever for plowing and milk, and thus became a blessing to look at or touch, and actually too precious alive to eat. He also notes that Islam has always had a much harder time getting established anywhere the pig is a major part of the traditional diet.

Don't be sad, lil guy, it's not your fault they hate you. Image from ehow.com, click for URL The reason the pig is part of traditional diets in many other parts of the world is because in the right  ecosystem, it turns out to be pretty useful as a garbage disposal and forest scavenger. Pigs were traditionally raised on “slops” (or human food that’s been rendered unfit for human consumption) and the nuts and roots they could forage in wooded areas. Thus, rather than competing with humans for food, pigs ate things that people might technically be able to eat, but probably weren’t going to—fruit and vegetable peelings, table scraps, windfall produce, acorns, beechnuts, and truffles (which humans certainly like but have a difficult time finding on their own. Truffle-hunters still use hogs to help sniff them out and  routinely lose fingers trying to snatch them away from under their noses).

The argument about the ecological wastefulness of meat is based on the idea that animals are eating food that humans could and would otherwise eat, but that’s a relatively recent development. This is essentially the argument Simon Fairlie makes in his recent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, as paraphrased by George Monbiot:

Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

Fairlie’s no fan of industrial agriculture, and he doesn’t think that it’s sustainable for people to continue eating as much meat as they do now, on average, in wealthy countries. Instead, he supports what he calls “permaculture” meat, or meat produced from biomass that is basically “free” in a system dedicated to the production of of vegetable food. Grass-fed ruminants are major part of that, but as he suggests, grass is not the only essentially-free source of animal feed. The key to sustainable pig production is to let them eat garbage. Marketing folks, get to work on this: how do you make “Garbage-fed Pork” as appealing as “Grass-fed Beef”?

This entry got a little long so I’m splitting it in two…more soon on why people like Professor Seabury get it wrong and the growing epidemic of Cornphobia.