Free online course: An Introduction to the U.S. Food System

Yesterday I began a free online course from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health¬†through their OpenCourseWare program. It’s a 6-week, at your pace course called¬†An Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Each week’s module contains video lectures, related readings, and a quiz. I’m halfway through the first module’s lectures, and I am very pleased with the course format and the information delivered thus far. It feels like a serious course, not something quickly thrown together and dumbed down for the masses. Here is the list of weekly modules:

  • Week 1: Introduction to Food Systems, Equity and the Environment
  • Week 2: Food Systems, Food Security and Public Health
  • Week 3: Public Health and Environmental Implications of Industrial Models of Food Production
  • Week 4: Food and Farm Policy
  • Week 5: Alternative Approaches to Food Production
  • Week 6: Diet, Food Environments, and Food Access

I’ll post interesting tidbits here, but it’s not too late if you want to sign up yourself! Click here to go to the Coursera site.

Royal factory farming

All the fuss about the royal wedding made us wonder about factory farming in the UK. How does it compare to factory farming here in the US?

The big difference seems to be with the level of awareness of consumers in the UK, which in turn influences the behavior of agribusinesses and legislators. British consumers in general are more advanced in their views on factory farming than their American counterparts. This description from World Society for the Protection of Animals explains the mindset of many British consumers:

The UK has broadly high welfare standards in the UK, as well as strong consumer awareness regarding eggs and meat. As a nation of animal lovers, free range eggs are an everyday item and shoppers by and large try to buy ethical and high welfare meat products.
However, milk and dairy products are less well understood and our dairy industry as we know it is under threat to intensify production.

In response to the dairy industry threat, British charities and nonprofits are fighting the applications of mega-dairies seeking to set up shop in the country, because, as we know, factory dairy farms are bad for the environment, bad for the animals, and bad for consumers. Currently, the WSPA says, the average dairy farm in Britain is home to only 113 cows, with very few farms housing more than 200 cows; compare that to the US where some mega-dairies pack over 15,000 cows into cramped indoor quarters.

Other ways Europe is ahead of the US in farm animal treatment: the UK has an Animal Welfare Minister and government-created Farm Animal Welfare Council to enforce farm animal treatment standards; the EU outlawed battery cages (effective next year), pig tail docking, veal crates, and pig gestation cages (effective in 2013); and the EU banned the administration of growth hormones, growth-enhancing drugs, and human antibiotics to food animals. The concept of animal sentience is much more accepted in Europe: that animals are intelligent and feel emotions.

It seems that, like the hats they wear to fancy events, British consumers and legislators are quite sophisticated regarding animal welfare. Even if we Americans don’t want to adopt their headwear fashions, we should at least strive to emulate their outlook towards livestock.