Vegan Dogs

Dogs have been the ultimate animal companion to humans for thousands of years.  Dogs are said to be the first animal domesticated by humans, well before cows, goats, or sheep.  Anthropologists argue that dogs were used by early hunter-gatherers, with the divergence of “dogs” from “wolves” thought to occur sometime around 35,000 years ago.  The divergence is said not to be entirely from the hand of humans, but interactions between humans and a dog-like species could very well have happened at this time.  This is certainly the difficulty with modern science – though genome sequencing can say one thing, it is really up to the interpretation of scientists as to what actually happened in the past.

Regardless if humans and dogs started out as friends or foes this far back in history, dogs have certainly maintained their presence as a companion species into the present day.  But our current relationship with dogs is very different from years past.  Dogs in the United States today are rarely kept primarily for hunting or herding purposes anymore.  They have become part of the human family.  Today dogs often live indoors, have their own dog birthdays, and even their own dog marriages.

dog wedding broad city

Who can forget the elaborate dog wedding featured in the second season of Broad City?  The reception even included species-specific food options.  Photo credit: Comedy Central, 2015.

The evolution of this relationship has been written about by many scholars – and I’ve always been personally fascinated by our strong connections to dogs.  There are interesting historical moments between humans and dogs that do not exist with other animals.  Dogs were given certain rights before many humans, for example, in legal arenas focused on criminalizing abuse.  In 1874, the first court case filed in the U.S. to approach a situation of child abuse had to go through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York, with the organization formed eight years earlier.  Dogs have been dubbed war heroes.  Specially trained dogs are given rights to access many different public spaces, and K9 dogs can even receive the same social and legal treatment as humans with the same occupation.   As a result, care for dogs has become increasingly specialized.  And feeding dogs today has not only become a nutritional concern of veterinary medicine.  For some feeding is a political act in itself.  Such expressions between dogs and humans through the acts of feeding and eating have created new possibilities for dog identities – and I don’t mean breeds!  I’m talking about vegan and vegetarian dogs.

Kiwanis Vegan dog

Vegan dog photo from PETA webpage.  Photo credit: PETA, 2013.

Our long, intimate relationship with dogs (as I’ve noted above) makes a phenomenon like dog veganism less surprising.  But just because dogs can be vegan, does this mean they should be?  You may be surprised, but the answers to this question are very similar to those generated if you would replace “dogs” with “humans.”  But in addition to the obvious political expressions through pets, the purpose of this post is to point out that there are some biological realities at work in this movement.


Chewy, short for “Chewbacca.”  He even has his own Instagram page.

I’m going to use my own dog-companion as an example here.  Meet Chewy.  Chewy is not a vegan dog, and I don’t think he ever could be if we tried.   Chewy is a grain-free dog.  This was a dietary decision my husband and I did not choose ,and it is certainly not a call for political action on our part when we feed Chewy his grain-free food.  Chewy is actually allergic to grain, or at the very least the binding agents added to the mix for many grain-based foods.  We’re familiar with the physical results of an accidental grain-fed mishap.  His ears and belly become bright red.  He gets excessively itchy, and if it is really bad Chewy whines with discomfort.  How is it that Chewy became allergic to grain?  I liken it to allergies expressed in humans – it is really hit or miss with the reasoning behind the biological expression.  Chewy was a rescue, and there very well could be hereditary reasons why he has bad reactions to grain.  But as with many humans with allergies, we can never know for sure.

Some overly-expressive dog moms have told me that grain-based dog food is less “natural” for dogs.  I am often rewarded with the informal “dog-mom seal of approval” because of my dog food investments.  The same “natural” argument is often used to dismiss the vegan dog diet as well, with many of these same human-companions noting that dogs are more “carnivorous” than anything else.  But humans have been feedings dogs a number of different things over their centuries of interactions.  Barley meal mixed with whey was said to have been the ideal meal for a dog in the Roman Empire.  Cooked beans were also recommended during this time period and centuries later by agriculturalists and later veterinarians.  In The Complete Farrier, an 1816 guidebook written by British veterinary surgeon Richard Lawrence, it was warned numerous times not to feed dogs raw meat.  Rather, meat was to be cooked, placed in a broth and poured over bread crumbs or biscuits for dogs.  It was also recommended that dogs only eat once per day as “he digests his food very slowly,” particularly when eating anything meat-based (429).  These are certainly different diets from those shared with dogs in the 21st century, but does this mean their more “natural”?  More “healthy”?  Or even less healthy with our pups?


Considering this long and varied history of feeding dogs that spans at least 1500 years, the idea of a “natural” dog food is hard to distill.  Perhaps a dog paleo diet would be sufficient for some dog parents as the “most natural” diet for their pets, but it comes with the exact same reasoning as to why paleo would be more “natural” for humans.  Because dogs evolved with humans, they are able to eat similar foods to humans; or at the very least adapt with them.  And this is what makes vegan dogs that much more interesting.  Looking into veganism for dogs a bit more, it is admitted by all veterinarians that dogs are able to survive off a vegan-friendly diet.  Now, there is still a lot of debate as to whether “surviving” and “thriving” is the same thing when it comes to feeding dogs with such a specialty diet.  But if I were to define Chewy’s diet using the terms and expectations laid out from the Roman Empire – he may not be considered “thriving” either.  And my husband and I wouldn’t consider a grain diet in any form “thriving” for Chewy, given his adverse physical reactions to it.

Many dog parents are finding the “vegan solution” after realizing similar allergic reactions in their dogs to certain kinds of dairy and meat.  In 2011, CNN coverage of vegan dogs rested on the story of a woman discovering the vegan option when her veterinarian recommended it to pinpoint a specific allergy in her pet.  So did dogs develop allergies in the same way humans have through our constant interaction?  Perhaps, but both the biological reactions seen in dogs and increased importance politically in dietary decision-making for humans has certainly affected the dog food market.  There are at least seven vegan dog food brands available in the United States, and I don’t think allergies were the only consumer push for this reality.


Acana dog food – Grasslands variety.  A bag with baggage – not vegan but grain-free.  Photo credit: Acana Company, 2016.

The politics of eating (or in this case feeding) resonates with me more powerfully, though, every time I buy Chewy’s food.  Most of the grain-free options we find in the pet store come with other kinds of political baggage listed on the label: it is also GMO-free, cage-free, free range and “biologically appropriate.”  Dog food labels are just as politicized (and confusing) as human food labels.  I can’t help but wonder if fellow dog moms assume I possess a certain food politic when buying my Acana brand food, or if they recognize the biological limitations of my pet that prohibit me from buying a cheaper but still valid dog food.  For some dog parents, the biological reactions and political action may certainly go hand-in-hand.  But they don’t for me.  And I don’t feel Chewy needs to reflect my personal political, economic, religious, or social beliefs for me.  But for many people their dog has become so much part of their family that it is ideal if their dogs match their political efforts, if not required.  This is not a phenomenon to attack, but one that needs more attention, more study.  It is yet another example of the disruptions made between natural and cultural divides, and while it includes its fair share of anthropomorphism it is complicated with the biological realities of shared “becomings” – a result of our evolution with other animals.

**Featured image is from the V-Dog website, a vegan dog food company.  The company advertises that their food considers not only the health of dogs, but the health of the planet – with a mission to “minimize global depletion.”


Lawrence, Richard. The Complete Farrier, and British Sportsman, 1816.
The Wikipedia page on dog food is also a good introductory source for the general history of dog food:

Applying human rights to food animal bodies: A problem of perspective?

A few weeks ago, I received this Facebook message from a good friend of mine:

“I saw a video about dairy industries, I knew [about] most things, but they are horrible… I sent it to you just if you want to talk about some of them some time… you are the person who know[s] more about dairy that I know and I am [in] shock.”

She provided a video link with the message.  I watched it.  And then I watched it again – to make sure I heard the narrator correctly in her facts and reasoning.  My second viewing confirmed my fears: Yet another aggressive, hateful, fact-flexible, anti-dairy video.  It wasn’t the first I had seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But this one was gaining momentum across the web and having real social consequences for less knowledgeable consumers and overly sensitive farmers viewing it.  With my personal investments in dairy cows and the farmers who care for them, I couldn’t stand by idly.

If you haven’t watched the video here is my trigger warning: it is incredibly graphic and shocking.  It is meant to produce an intense visceral reaction.  The flashing images of cows being inseminated, pushed by skid loaders, and suffering various ailments (including cancer and mastitis) are disturbing without context.  Some images are just incorrectly attributed, particularly an image of cattle with iodine on their teats to describe “blood” in milk.  The narrator places all of these images, both legitimate and incorrect, within a discourse of violence and abuse.  She is able to do this successfully by making the viewer relate to the images on a more personal level – using vocabulary like “mother and baby,” “mothers’ crying,” “sexual exploitation,” and “emotionally exhausted.”


Of course the video wouldn’t show a cow enjoying a robotic brushing… right?  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

This strategy of placing human emotions, desires, and behaviors on food animals is incredibly compelling.  It has been used in many movements to protect animals, and has encouraged many individuals around the world today to change their nutritional habits.  More and more people are refraining from eating meat and dairy products in response to these strategies, and this is appropriate up to a certain point.  But the ethics behind this strategy of placing human attributes onto other animals is overall murky.  It also raises some important philosophical questions.  Should animals be evaluated on human terms?  What happens when animals are granted the same attention as humans?  How does this affect human food practices, and what does it mean for the animals raised for these purposes?

These questions are by far some of the most difficult for scholars in food and science studies to tackle.  Anthropomorphism (this placing of human attributes onto non-humans) is something that has existed since the dawn of human consciousness.  Scholars have attributed the strategy to hubris, a rationale to account for certain behaviors, religion, and overall as a way for humans to conceptualize the world around them in ways that are relatable.  I actually first encountered the term in a Greek Mythology class, where it was explained that Greek gods were conceptualized as having human qualities because it made unexplainable events (in nature or otherwise) more legible.  It made more sense for lightening to be a human decision rather than to be a distant, random, alien force of nature.


Mickey is just one of many examples of anthropomorphism applied to animals – a mouse that sings, dances, and has a girlfriend.  During my fieldwork, I encountered many farmers blaming the popularization of Disney for the unrealistic expectations consumers place on farmers today.  Photo credit: Google Images.

What makes anthropomorphism murky is that the social consequences of applying human qualities to non-human entities have varied throughout history.  Religion could be considered one consequence, and certain politics another.  But what we are seeing with this anti-dairy industry video is something quite new in human history – both technologically and socially speaking.  It is a critique and condemnation of a practice that has become isolated to most people living in the world today – a moment in time that has been dubbed “post-domestic” by historian Richard Bulliet (2007).  Animal husbandry, in this context, is seen not only as antiquated but as an abomination of animal rights.  Following the life of this video in YouTube comments and blog posts since its upload in December illustrates this vividly.  One blogger responds to a “debunker” from Canada:

“In what hellscape do we live in that is perfect fine with messing around and exploiting sexual organs because it isn’t seen as ‘an act of love?’ I personally felt a sickness to my core while reading this, as it’s an argument that thrives on a culture that has normalized sexual abuse in not just nonhumans, but human women as well.”

The blogger was responding to how the debunker farmer described the technological use of artificial insemination practices in cattle.  A commenter on this blog agreed, writing “humans are not special” and that “farmers are just cows’ pimps.”


Bulliet’s book looks into the history of animal-human relationships and how it has changed our perceptions of food.  Photo credit:

There’s obviously some room for critique about sexual abuse in our culture, but I hesitate to think that dairy cows and the dairy industry should be the analytic used to launch this discussion.  It places humans and other animals on an unrealistically even field for conversations about morals and ideals in care – ideals that are culturally contingent, human contingent.  This is a field where discussions can become dangerously distorted –  to the point where some farmers have been told by animal rights activists that farmer suicide is not a “problem,” but rather a “justice” for their “helpless creatures.”

There is a difference between denying an animal of its rights as a living creature on Earth and respecting an animal for whom/what it is.  I have seen much more of the latter in my interactions with farmers.  Farmers sweat, cry, and bleed for the health and welfare of their animals.  Healthy, cared-for animals are seen as more beneficial for farmers relying on them for their own health and prosperity, which happens to be measured in dollars nowadays.  The very definition of domestication hinges on the mutual benefit relationship shared by human and other animal – a “cooperation” that is fostered between these two organisms.  But “cooperation” does not imply “equal,” and you wouldn’t expect this if you were defining cooperation between an employer and employee, or even among family members, or more abstractly nation-states.  I thus share in a critique many farmers have in placing human and animal rights together on an incredibly flat and equal playing field: this frame does not account for the differences.  It does not account for biological difference.  It does not account for the cultural history of these differences.  And it does not account for the everyday, lived experience of these differences.  The post-domestic sphere has allowed some humans to abstract difference because they no longer regularly interact with food animals.

I want to be clear before I continue with this discussion.  I am well aware that historically some humans have justified the denial of rights to others through discourses of difference.  Sex, skin color, geographic location, and cultural practice have been used time and time again to justify inequality and violence.  This has never been right.  This history is far from fair.   And the human-animal divide has been muddy philosophically, psychologically, biologically… overall scientifically for centuries (and I have a colleague grappling with this material for her own project!)  This science has been used in the past to justify social inequality.  But I am not talking about the interactions humans have had with other humans for this post.  I’m talking about other animals we have been working with and eating for thousands of years – animals that are undeniably different; animals that rely on our care for survival.

Now biologically, we are all animals.  But seriously, how often do we interact with other animals – specifically food animals?  How often have you – sitting at your electronic device reading this post – touched, smelled, stood next to a 1500 pound bovine?   A 15 hands tall horse? A 200 pound pig?  A dozen chickens?  Have you ever cared for one of these animals?  Helped move one?  Feed one?   If you did these things every day, would your perception of these animals change?  These are some of the realistic questions that need to be asked before evaluating a situation that involves such animals, and before identifying the behavior of the humans involved with them as “abusive.”

If you have been reading my posts you may be asking yourself: but Nicole, weren’t you just writing about how impossible it can be to separate conceptual categories like “human” and “non-human.”  What gives?  This is when I urge us to return to the consequences of this discourse.

Blurring the divide between human and non-human (as a thought experiment, as a philosophical endeavor, as an ethic) in one context can be extremely important – especially when people are describing instances when humans seemingly have no impact on nature.  The consequences of this divide in this circumstance are detrimental.  The inability to place human action and environmental change in conversation with one another has arguably been the root cause of pollution, climate change, and, yes, even animal abuse.  But the problem with this video and others like it is that abuse is signified using human assumptions, and not just any assumptions: assumptions of consumers who have little interaction with the farmers or animals being addressed.  This is when the situations at hand need to be nuanced through the understanding that some animals are indeed different from other animals – and these differences emerge through different evolutionary histories, different geographic locations, different ecological circumstances, and different social interactions with humans.  Videos like “Dairy is Scary” do not help contextualize problems of animal abuse; they mobilize hatred for other humans through visual distortion and essentialist language.

For example, instead of condemning artificial insemination it would have been more helpful for the narrator to ask why cows are artificially inseminated.  The history may have surprised them – since AI was developed not only as a safer method in breeding cattle for humans (rather than moving a large bull from one pen to another), but also for the cow (who could potentially be harmed in the interaction).  There would have still been space in such a question to critique the size of dairy operations or even the diversity of dairy cow gene pools.  There would have been room to call attention to issues of animal health, and perhaps even American consumer culture.  But calling agricultural interventions like AI “bestiality” ends the conversation abruptly.  It launches a shouting match rather than a productive discussion.  And no one can benefit from this kind of criticism – let alone the animals themselves.

DSCN2893 (2)

From an American Breeders Service (ABS) Newsletter, 1954.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2015.

There are some images in this video that are obviously images of abuse – but condemning an entire group of hard-working people for the actions of a few also does not solve problems.  It creates distrust.  Distrust is the last thing we need between food producers and their consumers in a world where the majority of humans have no idea how to grow and store vegetables, rear and care for animals, or organize and manage a farming operation.   If we do not find new ways to talk across agendas, we can say good bye to any iteration of a pastoral ideal, and hello to more of these “post-domestic” nightmares.

**Elsie The Cow comics were developed by Borden Dairy Products in the 1940s – the comic featured in this post was published in 1949.  Photo credit:


Budiansky, Stephen. The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose Domestication. 1st edition. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1992.
Bulliet, Richard. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Candlemas and Furry Weathermen

For those still hiding in an underground burrow after the “big snow” last week, you may not have known that yesterday was Groundhog Day.  Every February 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil (the Pennsylvania groundhog) emerges from his den and his Inner Circle of humans interpret his weather prediction for the weeks to come.  Phil can either announce we will have “six more weeks of winter” (which is marked by him seeing his shadow) or an “early Spring” (no shadow seen).   This year he granted us an early Spring.


Screen shot from Sony Picture’s Groundhog Day, featuring Bill Murray, 1993.   Murray’s character also found the tradition bizarre, at least before he relived the day over a thousand times…

For 21st century America, the tradition of Groundhog Day may seem out of place.  Not only does a furry weatherman seem more satirical than serious in nature, but the significance behind the prediction seems lost in translation.  Today, an early Spring means, for the most part, the prospect for better weather: perhaps celebrating the idea that we might not have to trudge in the snow much longer.  But this prediction means something entirely different for a farmer.

Groundhog Day correlates with Candlemas, which correlates with the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  There are many speculations as to how this development from a Catholic holiday to a silly Pennsylvania folk tradition played out through history.  The Presentation of Jesus event for Catholics was a time when candles were blessed for use over the rest of the year, granting the holiday’s alternative name: Candlemas (Candle Mass).  The correlation between Candlemas and Groundhog Day is said to originate from a German pagan tradition – when bears (some sources say hedgehogs, others say badgers) and their behavior were considered signs for future weather conditions.  The important reference point that applies to all of the holidays is that they sit forty days after Christmas – a significant point in time for many parts of Europe and the United States that marks seasonal change.

farm implement

Farm Implement News, Chicago, 1893.  Photo Credit: Google Books.

The uselessness of Christmas as a “weather mark” was teased about in some nineteenth century writings.  In one 1893 article in the Chicago Farm Implement News titled “Ground-Hog Day is a Fraud,” the writer provided an old Scottish rhyme to describe the significance of Groundhog Day and its correlation to Candlemas Day:

“If Candlemas day be dry and fair,

The half o’ winter’s to come and mair.

If Candlemas day be wet and foul,

The half o’ winter was gone at Yule.”

The writer used the poem to point out that Groundhog Day “was a fraud” because Candlemas poems had used similar, specific weather conditions on the day for humans to be able to predict early Springs or late winters.  There was no need to rely on a furry weatherman.  Sunny days marked late winters, while rainy days marked early Springs.  This mapped nicely onto whether Punxsutawney Phil (then, Br’er Groundhog) could “see his shadow or not,” and provide his subsequent predictions.


The pig says, “Don’t get so cheaty, any old hog can see his shadow when the sun shines.” This cartoon also pokes fun at the shadow-prediction lore.  Postcard dated pre-1914.  Photo credit: Antique Shoppe Newspaper, 2006.

The meaning of Candlemas and Groundhog Day seemed to get confusing for other Americans in the nineteenth century – particularly within this decade after it was made an official holiday in 1887.  In a newspaper clipping from Michigan in 1894, for example, a writer known by “Kelper” pondered the origins of “Candlemas”:

“As far as my observation goes, it is not a general custom with American farmers to burn superfluous candles on this important anniversary.  They seem to have more cheaply compromised the matter by giving over the duties of its appropriate celebration to the bear and the ground-hog, and no member of either species, if of correct principles and competent education and acquirements, ever fails on the second of February to climb out of his den, sit up, and diligently look about him in search of his shadow.”

Kelper obviously did not read the Chicago Farm Implement News.  But it is interesting to note that farmers were still called out on the tradition of Candlemas in the article.  Kelper prefaced their writing with a “proverbial rhyme” collected from an “old farmer”:

“Half yer wood an’ half yer hay.

Fer to-morrer’s Can’lemas Day.

‘Yes,’ replied the other,

An’ ef there’s a chance for snow er rain,

A plenty o’ meat ‘n grain.”

natural history groundhog day

From Forest and Stream, which was advertised as “the weekly journal of the rod and gun.” New York, 1894.  Photo credit: Google Books.

Candlemas was not just a day for weather predictions, but a specific day for farmers to remember to save some resources that may be needed for a probable winter.  These resources were not just for the farmer himself (the wood most likely for fuel), but for his animals – more specifically his cattle.  The last two lines of the proverb lend themselves to this interpretation.  The possibility of a longer winter is arguably still on many farmers’ minds as we make our way into February.  In this time period, however, cattle were principally pasture-fed, and hay and grain were used as alternative feeds when snow did not allow for grazing.  To anticipate a longer winter on this date and remember to save hay for the animals possibly kept farmers from preemptively selling or over-using their supply.  This made for not only happy cows, ensuring full bellies through the season regardless of the prediction, but also happy farmers with healthier, fatter animals if the winter continued, and more hay and grain on reserve if the early Spring panned out.

But is Groundhog Day really the “fraud” the Farm Implement proposed it to be?  To place the pressure of predicting weather on the shoulders of a groundhog truly has significance to farmers.  Groundhogs were nuisances for nineteenth century farmers, and are still considered nuisances today.  Their holes create problems in preparing land for crops and even in letting cows onto pasture.  I remember my father being animate about filling holes before letting cows out to graze, fearing that one of the girls could trip into a hole and hurt or break her leg.  These were not creatures to be celebrated, and in many ways Groundhog Day isn’t meant to celebrate a chubby rodent.  Shifting the blame on the animal for the misfortunes held in an incorrect weather prediction is definitely appealing if not ideal for the farmer who needs even better reason to hunt mischievous groundhogs.


Farm Implement News, 1893.

Forest and Stream. Forest and Stream Publishing Company, 1894.

Yoder, Don. Groundhog Day. Stackpole Books, 2003.

**Cover image is from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website,

Defining Natural

Public comment dockets have become an interesting space for policy makers and the public to engage in conversations with one another about various issues in public health.  The ever-developing internet has allowed dockets to take on a life of their own – public comments submitted in almost a blog post format for perusal.   If you haven’t ever checked out the dockets before, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the subjects being opened for public comment.  They include some really important issues – from tobacco legislation to air quality regulation.


On November 12, 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened a docket to “receive information and comments on the use of the term ‘natural’ in the labeling of human food products, including foods that are genetically engineered or contain ingredients produced through the use of genetic engineering.”   The FDA asking for public opinion on the issue of the “natural” definition is not a new event.  In 1991, the organization proposed trying to define the term in labeling in order to create “consumer consensus” on what the term meant and how it should be regulated for use.  Easier said than done.  The comments were apparently sporadic enough to discourage the FDA from defining this term through rulemaking.  At that moment, the FDA maintained that “natural” would be interpreted as the following: “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”


The increased development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been enough cause to establish a new docket on the issue.  Three citizen petitions were received by the FDA requesting a hard definition of “natural,” and one petition to eradicate the term from labeling altogether.  The docket (as of the end of the day yesterday) has received 3,336 electronically submitted comments.  You can read the public submissions as they are uploaded online.

food fray

There are many books published on the subject of GMO technology – many with biased slants against it.  Even Food Fray (2008), which is advertised to provide a “middle ground” to the debate, cannot escape the language of conspiracy inherent in narratives about the science.  The cover of the book speaks for itself.  Photo credit:

Many of the comments have broad-sweeping consistencies; largely that “natural” does not apply to food created in laboratories or from unsustainable farming systems (pesticides are largely noted in these comments).  Additionally, it should also be applied to food that is not pasteurized, not artificial, and not “man made in any form.”

The OED defines “natural” as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”  This seems like a reasonable definition overall and fits the description of commentators on the docket.   But when this definition is realistically applied to something “caused by humankind” like the larger global food system – it falls apart.  Why is it so hard to define “natural” in these instances?  Can it be done, and should it?

“Natural” is inherently difficult to grasp because “nature” is just as abstract.  Raymond Williams – a scholar who had dedicated much of his work to the meaning of words – noted the challenge of the word “Nature” in his essay, “Ideas of Nature” (1980).  Throughout literary and scientific history, Nature has meant a myriad of things for humans.  According to Williams, Nature described a primitive form of life that existed before human society, and a quality of innocence that existed before the fall in the Garden of Eden.  Nature has also been considered a force – one that simultaneously destroys, creates, preserves, and changes life (72 – 73).  As time went on and in the interest of studying “natural processes” in the wake of scientific inquiry, “Nature” and “Man” as conceptual arenas had to be separated.   Through this separation, man was able to not only observe nature without contestation, but largely control it.  This control seemed inherent to the philosophical definition of “human,” Williams speculated, and it has arguably created the historical social disparities we still see today – arguably byproducts in the history of science.  Sherry Ortner (1972), for example, has written that because women have been historically considered closer to nature in their ability to biologically reproduce, women have been considered less separate from Nature, and thus inferior to men – who are considered more separate from Nature.   Though now considered a simple feminist description, it is important to note that even misogyny was thought to have been solidified through the Nature – Man divide.  We even see similar arguments held in old explanations of racial and class hierarchies.

raymond williams

Photo credit:

But what these scholars and many after them have shown is that defining nature is contingent on an abstract, ever changing definition imposed by a particular group of humans.  The irony of this?  All humans are a product of nature.  Philosophically this has been difficult for us as a species to come to grips with – particularly the flip-side that nature is also a product of humans.  I think Williams wrote it best:

“In this actual world there is then not much point in counterposing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature.  We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out.  Except that if we mentally draw back, if we go on with the singular abstractions, we are spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity” (83).

Considering that our food systems are products of longstanding engagements between “nature” and “man,” defining “natural” today to label human food products becomes an enormous philosophical endeavor.  This is particularly weighty with the case of GMOs, where genetic modification has reached sophisticated lengths beyond selection and hybrid breeding.  Lines are being drawn by many different types of consumers as to where modification is no longer “natural,” and a newly bounded definition that limits human intervention on food products could have consequences (negative and positive) for the future of food production.


It really depends on how “genetic modification” is defined as well.  Photo credit:

Is it “natural” for Americans to have access to seasonal food all year round?  Are foods grown in greenhouses more or less “natural” than seasonal, non-pasteurized crops?  Is hunting and gathering more “natural” than intensive agriculture, and does this “natural-ness” translate into “healthier”?  These are questions consumers have been asking themselves in regards to the “natural” label, and they are certainly reflected in the comments posted to the FDA docket in question.  But the answers to these questions are also clearly based on generalized assumptions of current food systems, assumptions about food science and research, and romantic notions of what it means to be “existing in or caused by nature.”  Our relationship with nature has changed, and thus both Nature and Humans have changed.  As Williams and others have noted, this needs to be acknowledged, as well as the fact that “nature” and “mankind” are not separate entities and never have been.  This is where the OED definition becomes incredibly flawed, and the possibility for a new definition of “natural” for food product labeling potentially dangerous.  Such separations mute human accountability, assume the stability of human-made categories, and simplify both ecological and social relationships.


Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28. doi:10.2307/3985059.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 1, no. 2 (1972): 5–31. doi:10.2307/3177638.

Ph.D, Lisa H. WEASEL. Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn, 2008.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. Verso, (1980) 2005.


**Cover image from USDA film strip, published in the article “Stewart’s Wilt of Corn” by J. Pataky (2003) from the American Phytopathological Society.

Farm Show Features Families: Both human and animal

Livestock shows have provided an opportunity for farmers to come together and appreciate their shared knowledge of animals since the 18th century.  Though arguably initially organized to promote ideals held about animals by the aristocracy, particularly in England, by the end of the 19th century shows were spaces where ordinary farmers could trade information about animal rearing and celebrate the best breeders of their time (see Ritvo 1987).


fans witnessed the importance of Lady Mary’s aristocratic participation at the “fat stock show,” which showcased the skill of ordinary farmers from the village.  This episode was a great example of the tensions and shifts happening between the English classes at early 20th century livestock shows.  Featured in Episode 2 of the 2016 season.  Photo Credit: PBS, 2016.

In the United States, agricultural shows gained momentum by the early 20th century.  One of the oldest national cow shows includes the American Royal, which is still held annually in Kansas City, Missouri.  With its first show in 1899, the American Royal was considered the first national exhibition to showcase purebred cattle in the United States.  But more localized shows across the country popped up years before and after this time.  This past weekend the Pennsylvania Farm Show celebrated its 100th anniversary, with its organization completed by state agricultural officials in 1916 and the first show taking place officially in Harrisburg from January 23-25, 1917.  It is considered the largest indoor agricultural event in the United States.

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Farm Show Program.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Walking around the Farm Show this Saturday, I encountered much of the old “sharing knowledge” doctrine that remains at the heart of these national, state, and local-level meetings.  Some of this knowledge is similar to what we would have seen in the 19th century, particularly the sharing of pedigrees in award winning animals.  For breeders interested in not only animal aesthetics but food-livestock utility, pedigrees help fellow farmers understand ideal breeding combinations.  High quality bulls and their families are of particular focus.  In the past, farmers advertised the studs of prize-winning animals for sale at the shows.  The popularization of artificial insemination and frozen spermatozoa technologies in the 1950s made breeding from desirable bulls easier, allowing bulls to contribute to offspring across the nation and around the world without having to sell or even move the animal.  Today, a dairy farm from the States and a farm from Japan can house daughters from the same sire without ever having to interact with the bull.

Pedigree information is exchanged in a few different ways at shows today.  Not only do show catalogs feature this information, but participating farms will often display these facts with a name plate hanging above the animal in her tie-area.  These plates can be lavishly decorated and often include the full name of the animal, her dam (mother), and her sire  (father).  Some plates may indicate longer lineages, and if the animal has been classified list her classification score.  An “EX” after a cow’s name, for example, means “excellent,” with her point score indicating how high in this category she was placed by a professional classifier.


Notice the headboard including the name plates from Davis Pride Farm.  These signs featured the full name, sire, dam, and date of birth of each animal.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Showmen are also required to provide the names of the sires of their animals as they are walking them in the ring.  During the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association Dairy Judging School at the Farm Show, those who volunteered their animals for the judging competition were asked to provide birth dates and sire names over the microphone to help participants better compare breeding decisions with overall class placings.

The familial lineages of cattle were not the only ones presented at the Farm Show this year.  The lineages of the participants were also displayed in creative – really, beautiful – ways that showcased family participation.  Some families have made the Farm Show a tradition that has lasted over three generations.  This was the case for Justa-Beauty Farm of Rebersburg, Pennsylvania.  The family created a small display next to their cattle showcasing the farm’s animals that have participated in the show since 1937.  The center image of the display featured a family member with their Grand Champion Holstein that had won at the Farm Show in 1956.  Frames around this picture featured studio quality photographs of different cattle, some directly related to the champion.  Other families made similar displays but featured more images of children, parents, and grandparents exhibiting the animals at the Farm Show.  They were looks into history; small museum exhibitions dedicated to both human breeders and their animals – both part of long lineages participating in the show.


Justa-Beauty Farm “Museum Exhibition.”  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Many spectators of the Farm Show no longer come from farming backgrounds, making some of this pedigree information confusing and unrelatable (perhaps even for you reading this).  The Farm Show made it a point to create various “AgExplorer” stations this year with these spectators in mind.  The stations provided various kinds of generalized information geared toward educating the public about their larger food systems.  I was happy to see one station dedicated to educating families about what cows eat – asking children and adults to identify animal feeds from their appearance and texture.  There were stations about the bird flu, the size of an acre, and the importance of bees.  These probably were not the most important types of exhibitions to develop for the ag-integrated early 20th century audience.  But for the 21st century they offer a needed interaction between consumer and producer that happens so rarely in the agricultural industry today.  I think it was highly commendable for the Pennsylvania Farm Show to take the initiative to expand the knowledge-sharing doctrine of livestock showing to the greater consuming public, making even the most general information about animals in the food system digestible for a larger audience.


Delaware Valley Unitersity’s station on animal feeds.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 


Klaus, Mary.  Hold Your Horses: The Pennsylvania Farm Show at 100.  Intelligencer Printing Company, 2015.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Harvard University Press, 1987.

**Featured image from Hold Your Horses (2015).  It was an image shared by a farm family that has participated in the Pennsylvania Farm Show since the 1940s.

Milk Mustache Misconceptions

Satire can be a fun way to express the contradictions, controversies, and disturbing intricacies of our political culture.  I consider myself to be fan of satire, and The Simpsons one among my favorite cartoons poking fun at contemporary issues.  However, their most recent episode “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” (aired 1/10/2016) left me uneasy.  Based loosely on the effects of hormones in general, the episode honed in on how “Buzz Milk” affected the lives of the Simpson kids.  Bovine growth hormone and industrial agriculture claimed center stage, and I fear how the satire may have been received in the real world given the already overgeneralized knowledge circulated on these subjects.

simpson 1

Photo Credit: Fox on

To provide a little more context, the episode begins with Homer buying a carton of milk from the Kwik-E-Mart.  Initially he buys what Marge requested: a “healthy” carton of “Top of the Teat” organic milk.  Shocked to find the milk cost $16.00, Apu persuades Homer to buy a cheaper variation based on “Science.”  Insert bovine growth hormone (rbST), and over-exaggerated industrial ag representation here.

               The representation is uncanny to the “Down of the Farm” Video by PETA, which illustrates over-exaggerated industrial agriculture imagery.  PETA’s video is meant to be informational, not satire. Photo credits: Fox on, PETA Videos.

              Much of the animation in the episode focuses on the Simpson family consuming said milk.  There is careful attention to Bart sipping the milk from his glass, Lisa pouring it into her bowl, and Maggie swishing it around in her sippie-cup.  Throughout the episode the audience witnesses that the milk comes with various side effects.  Bart grows a mustache, Lisa inherits pimples, and Maggie dons a pair of shaggy eyebrows and super strength.  Though it is suggested in the episode that the regular hormones associated with puberty are partially to blame for these effects, Marge concludes that these changes are because of the milk.  The animators take time to frame Marge frantically taking the milk away from her children to pour it down the drain.  Meanwhile, Homer calls the number on the “Buzz Milk” carton for a “refund,” with the audience shown that the call is transferred to a prison cell.

            Photo credits: Fox on

            The use of synthetic bovine growth hormone to increase milk production in cattle has been controversial since trial testing of the product in the early 1980s.  I have been reading about this topic closely for the past three years, as well as talking with farmers, veterinarians, and promoters of the product, known as Posilac and now marketed by Eli Lilly and Company (formerly, Monsanto).  To me, the product continues to be controversial because scientifically it is complicated to describe how it works.  It doesn’t help that publicly in the past certain hormones were shown to have negative side-effects on humans.  This is most apparent in the case of DES, the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol.  After its synthesis in the 1930s, DES was pushed politically during the second World War for FDA approval to use in livestock and poultry.  The hormone was suspected to be harmful for humans when consumed, which was shown to be true in Canadian research showing changes in vaginal smears of women consuming it, and the case of a man who grew breasts after ingesting the pellets.  DES created public outrage by the 60s and 70s in its use by industrial agriculture, but remained approved and regulated by the FDA (it is now used solely for veterinary use) on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to present a case in its complete ban (see Langston 2011).

toxic bodies

Photo credit:

Residues of the DES controversy certainly affected public morale of “Science” during the rbST experimental trails and later approval hearings.  But the difference in both bovine growth hormone and its synthetic variation from DES is that it has been proven again and again that it does not affect humans in any way.  This was even confirmed by Health Canada during their debates on rbST, the same group that found disparities in their research during the DES controversies.  The biggest issue with rbST was actually how the hormone seemed to affect the cows themselves.  Animals given it were more susceptible to mastitis, an infection that can occur in the mammary system causing swelling and pus** in the milk.

When rbST was up for approval by the FDA, the majority of the debate against the product was the possibility that pus from mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat the condition would leach into the milk and into the larger milk food system.  These worries formed the basis of Canada’s ban of the product – which was on the grounds of animal welfare.  The document explaining the decision reiterated that rbST was shown not to effect humans.  The United States differed in their decision from Canada as the hearing members believed their animals and food system would not be at risk.  With the management of America’s “good” farmers, mastitis was not a significant risk for cattle, with pus and antibiotics not a significant risk to the food system.  Considering how milk is collected, diluted, and processed from farm to table – this decision made sense in 1993, and continues to make sense for politicians, scientists, and farmers now.

However, to some public figures this explanation and the science behind it remain unconvincing. Samuel Epstein is one of a few academics who has published books on the dangers of rbST as a carcinogen, fearing the possibility of elevated IGF-I production in human bodies through ingesting milk produced with the hormone.  Companies like Ben and Jerry’s made pledges since the 1993 rbST approval to only source milk for their products from non-rbST treated animals.  And politicians like Bernie Sanders have advocated against rbST on the grounds of protecting small farmers economically (though, from my research in 2013, I found most of the farmers using the product were in fact small farmers – including Amish – at least on the East Coast).


Photo credit:

rbST was thought to benefit cows, farmers, and the environment with its production and use.  With higher lactation rates, promoters described farms with fewer animals, meaning less feed waste and methane gas emissions.  They also described longer lactation cycles and less stress on the animal overall.  I have even heard of farmers using rbST to treat different ailments in their cattle.  It is used with close consideration to overall animal performance and potential, with very few animals in relation to the entire milking barn being treated with it at the same time.


Monsanto Posilac advertisement from 1998.  The main header reads, “The equipment gets more sophisticated, the methods become more scientific, but the reasons for doing it will always remain the same.”  Photo credit: Mark Arnold Freelance.

As of this past year, bovine growth hormone on the East Coast has been phased out with pledges made by larger dairy distributors not to sell milk sourced by animals treated with rbST.  This new shift has been largely consumer driven – a great triumph for those who were left uneasy about the product, but a great set-back for scientists promoting solutions to larger, agricultural problems.  Though The Simpsons’ work touches on the issue satirically, it perpetuates a monolithic view of milk production using rbST – one that is a great misunderstanding of the product and its controversy.  It wouldn’t produce the mutations illustrated in the cartoon, and this was never a factor to consider during its debate.    One could argue these fears were the very ideas the episode was trying to poke fun at on Sunday, but an everyday consumer separated from agricultural production and the initial controversies of rbST may view this as the “truth” about cheap dairy products.  But in fact, there is a lot to the story of bovine growth hormone that is overlooked, forgotten, or ignored based on preconceptions.

**I use the word “pus” to describe the concentration of white blood cells in milk that occurs with infection.  It should be noted that this was how mastitis was described during the approval hearings in 1993 mainly by groups against bST approval.  It continues to be a word of contention between dairy producers as they feel it does not adequately reflect the condition of mastitis.  It also can produce unnecessary disgust, for even if this milk was processed this material would not be consumed by the public.


Bauman, D. E. “Bovine Somatotropin and Lactation: From Basic Science to Commercial Application.” Domestic Animal Endocrinology 17, no. 2–3 (October 1999): 101–16. doi:10.1016/S0739-7240(99)00028-4.

Collier, R. J., and D. E. Bauman. “Update on Human Health Concerns of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin Use in Dairy Cows.” Journal of Animal Science 92, no. 4 (April 2014): 1800–1807. doi:10.2527/jas.2013-7383.

Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.

Pizza Pollution

What if your dietary habits were negatively affecting the environment?  Would you change what you ate on a day to day basis for the sake of climate change?  To combat deforestation?  Reduce energy use as well as air and water pollution?  This is certainly the rationale for many of my friends who have chosen to take the vegan dietary path.

The upkeep for cattle is considered environmentally detrimental.  According to various studies, the greenhouse gasses emitted from the livestock and dairy production systems are numerically higher than emissions from larger transportation systems (thinking planes, trains, and automobiles).  And methane gas flatulence from animals is just one part of this food system that is of concern.  The energy and gasses exhausted in animal feed production is considered just as much a culprit of the environmental problems caused by food-animals.


Photo credit:  Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

These issues have been pressed upon the public for at least 10 years now – really since the 2006 publication of a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  Titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options, the report provides information about the impact the world livestock food system has on the environment – including air, land, and water pollution.  The report, along with other studies, was shocking enough for former meat eaters to reconsider their dietary preferences.  However others, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, found the report extremely misleading because of its faulty, out-of-date data.  For others yet, it wasn’t a matter of eating meat itself that was the issue.  For some readers the report was a larger critical comment on how meat was being globally produced.  These environmental impacts were considered a cultural problem rather than a dietary problem, and advocates of certain sustainability, organics, and raw debates continue to use the report (and the rapport around it) to advocate for changes in the industrial food complex.

How culturally inherent is our industrial food system?  Very, if you consider when industrialization took place in the United States.  The growth correlates with the World Wars and the “race” for scientific progress, and many scholars have taken up this time period as a substantial cultural shift in America and around the world.  Milk – as you may have guessed – provides a fine example of this shift.  Though considered a “dangerous” product in the early 20th century, milk was re-marketed as America’s drink in the mid-20th century.  During World War II, images encouraging young men to drink milk and young women to continue to produce it while their troops were out to war became emblems of American culture.  The machines, the mass production, and the science behind these systems promoted the country in a very specific way –still widely considered the “American” way.

re-imagining milk

A comprehensive but short book that covers this re-marketing of milk is Andrea Wiley’s Re-Imagining Milk (2010).  Photo credit:

There is no denying that there are aspects of the industrial food system that need some work.  Politicians, scientists, and even farmers themselves have not always considered the consequences of “improved efficiency” in agriculture.  But what about those cultural food systems that have lasted much longer than industrialization?  Should they be critiqued in the same way?  Should the problems associated with them ultimately change how we produce, eat, and prepare our food?

A recent example lies in the case of San Vitaliano, a comune that is considered a part of the Metropolitan City of Naples.  Naples is considered the pizza capital of the world, and has been for a long time.  Travel writers have commented on the “flat dough circles” eaten by the lazzarone (poor city residents) since the early 19th century.  A native of Switzerland, Francis de Bourcard, wrote about pizza and drew Neapolitans preparing and eating it within the two volumes of his “Traditions and Customs of Naples” series – written between 1847 and 1866.  Famed author Alexandre Dumas also wrote about pizza Napoli contemporaneously, with his 1843 Oeuvres featuring the dish in detail.  Pizza captured the hearts of travelers, and has since spread globally as a universally desireable dish.  But the traditional way to prepare pizza may prove to be more harmful to environmental and human health  than previously realized.


The pizza maker, by Bourcard (circa 1850s).  Photo Credit: Omid, 2012.

In a BBC article published December 22nd this past month, the mayor of San Vitaliano placed a temporary ban on the use of wood stove ovens – used primarily by pizzerias in the making of traditional brick-oven pizza (using masonry ovens).  The reason?: air pollution.  San Vitaliano has been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, with smog comparable (if not worse) to Beijing.  The edict is meant as a step to improving air quality, but the ban has not been well received.  Protests launched by local residents reiterating that the smog cannot be from pizza making – that other factors were contributing to it.  The ban, according to the article, will remain in effect until March 31st, when filtering systems can be reevaluated.


Photo credit:, 2016.

This decision by city officials of San Vitaliano has some substantial environmental science behind it.  Concerning air pollution in the United States, the EPA has the “Burn Wise” partnership which encourages producers and owners of wood stoves and ovens to consider safer and better wood burning practices.  Wood particles are considered nasty culprits of human health issues when breathed into the lungs – and they are major contributors to “reduced visibility (haze)” that create “environmental and aesthetic damage.”  Solutions to excessive burned wood particles include using special filters as well as burning in particular ways.  These include using wood that has been dried outside for at least six months, burning hot fires, and burning non-treated wood.

But just as too much pizza (vegan or otherwise) cannot be good for your health, are too many pizza ovens not good for the environment?  The San Vitaliano ordinance seems to demonstrate that this may be the case.  Reducing pizza oven pollution may have various consequences to it – economically and socially affecting residents as well as visitors of the area.  It may even create a different dietary shift, depending on the impact of the ban and further research on pollution created through food preparation.  Would you give up an inherently traditional dish for the sake of the environment?  You may need to be prepared to answer this question wisely sooner than you may realize…


Bourcard, Francesco de. Usi e costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti. Stab. tip. di G. Nobile, 1853.

Dumas, Alexandre. Oeuvres. Meline, Cans et cie, 1843.

Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, Mauricio Rosales, and C. de Haan. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 2006.

Wiley, Andrea.  Re-Imagining Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Managing Microbes

New year, new resolutions.  If weight loss is on your list – scholars are encouraging humans to think more about the microscopic creatures living inside them.  This is particularly the case with an audiobook I have been running to for the past few days by Tim Spector, titled The Diet Myth (2015).  Published this past May, Spector’s book encourages his readers to think differently about the New Year’s diet strategies of old.  Atkins, Mediterranean, Paleo… whatever the new fad is, it may on the surface seem logical to try one or another.  But in the end it may not be good for us on an individual basis.  More specifically, these diets may not be good for our microbes.

diet myth

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The Diet Myth is a hodgepodge book filled with a mixture of personal anecdotes and scientific literature.  Bottom line: scientists time and again find inconsistent results when studying diet and nutrition.  Spector cites a myriad of studies, many showing even people with the same genetic make-up (Spector is a specialist in twin studies) do not always react to the same foods in the same ways.  One’s genetic background makes up only one component of weight loss/gain – and Spector reiterates this throughout the book.  Cultural, environmental, and psychological factors are considered by Spector tangentially, but he argues we get the most answers from our microbes with microbial-based studies.  These include the current American Gut, a continuation of the Human Microbiome Project by Jeff Leach.  Interested in what lives in you?  Leach’s project will test your gut for a fee – which is logged into a database for better understanding microbes. Even famed food author Michael Pollan has tested his microbes through this crowd-sourced study.


Photo credit:  Human Food Project, 2014.

For Spector, the answer you would get from such a test may surprise you.  According to the author – microbes can adapt, they respond to physical activity, as well as to stress.  This is what makes microbes unique to think about when considering changing a diet: they are tailored to you and your lifestyle.  I especially liked Spector’s example of “Pizza Dan,” a man residing in Maryland whose entire diet consists of cheese pizza.  Dan has diabetes he has managed since childhood, according to Spector, but otherwise, measuring his cholesterol, blood pressure, and the usual vitals linked to good health – he’s perfectly average.  Spector asks his readers: have Dan’s microbes adapted positively to this diet?  The healthy people like Dan are the ones we need to be studying, he advocates, and it seems the studies he has conducted so far show microbial diversity is the key to managing a healthy human body.

Spector didn’t start the microbe diet discussion.  Many books have been published over the past five years addressing the microbiome and the positive outcomes that could come with focusing on it for dieting.  But popular knowledge of microbes affecting health through overall diet has arguably existed in the agricultural sector long before this human-centric movement.  “Rumen bugs,” or the microbes living in ruminant animals, have been seriously considered in animal nutrition research since at least the 1970s.*  Ruminants like sheep and cattle are known to have special stomachs – and this has been fairly common knowledge for centuries.  It continues to be understood that ruminants have a delayed process of digestion in comparison to other stomachs because nutrients are extracted through fermentation.  This fermentation process can be tricky for farmers, as it can be easily altered through what the animals eat.

There are interesting debates about feeding and diagnosing ailments in cattle based on fermentation in the mid-19th century.  One lovely debate between veterinarians can be found in The Farmer’s Magazine of London from 1840.  The writer, named R. Read from Devon, writes that the former periodical (November 1840) was incorrect in describing “hoose” vs. “hoove” (I’m not entirely sure if he refers to a spelling error or an error in diagnosis).  According to this writer, “hoose” is a cough in young calves caused by lungworm, while hoove is an ailment of a cow’s stomach after having eaten, “young vetches, or after grass or clover, or lucerne while wet with dew.”  This diet causes excess gasses that can be trapped in the rumen causing serious internal damage.  The writer offers two suggestions to farmers when encountering severe hoove – to puncture the stomach with a knife and insert a “flexible tube”, or to feed the cow egg-sized pellets of lard, flour and salt.   Though microbes are not considered explicitly in such discussions, the process of fermentation and its variability through diet is addressed at length – particularly in this antacid-like procedure which is considered by this writer as “of real value” when the more invasive procedure cannot be performed.

Today, animal nutritionists are encouraging farmers to think about the microbes in the rumen in more creative ways.  During my ethnographic work with nutritionists and Amish farmers, the experts would encourage relationships with “happy bugs,” which could be facilitated through specific feeding regiments.  According to these experts, “waking bugs up” in the morning with dry hay and “keeping bugs active and happy” with fresh silage in front of the animal to consume throughout the day makes for more efficient milk production.  We are beginning to hear such language incorporated into conversations about our own stomachs – which probiotics in yogurt advertised as making “happy tummies.”  Anthropologist Heather Paxson (2008) has even documented “happy bug” language being used by raw milk advocates in describing their own stomachs.  Spector does not describe making microbes happy for healthier results in his book, but anthropomorphizing these invisible creatures arguably creates better emotive connections and commitments for non-scientists and non-experts.


Photo credit: The Bullvine, 2014.

Diverse bugs.  Active bugs.  Happy bugs.  Microbes, though rarely seen with the naked eye, are making their way into human health conversations.  Conversations about the relationships between microbial behavior and nutrition have been explicit for much longer in cows and sheep – but that doesn’t mean microbes have had a voice in these matters until the last few years.  Microbes are taking center stage: and their health and their happiness are being considered intrinsically linked to our health and happiness.  Eating for them (or feeding for them in the farmer’s case) shifts our perspective about nutrition – perhaps for the better.



M, Durand, and Komisarczuk S. “Influence of Major Minerals on Rumen Microbiota.” The Journal of Nutrition 118, no. 2 (February 1988): 249–60.

Paxson, Heather. “POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 15–47. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1360.2008.00002.x.

Spector, Tim. The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. Orion, 2015.

The Farmer’s Magazine. Rogerson and Tuxford, 1840.


*This is considering a few articles published in the 1988 Journal of Nutrition which was a symposium on rumen productivity.  The studies cited by these articles were completed in the 1970s. See Durand and Komisarczuk 1988.

Pondering New Years Pork

Sauerkraut un Schpeck

dreibt alle Sarje weck.”

Sauerkraut and pork

drive all cares away.

– Folk Saying, Sauerkraut Yankees, William Woys Weaver, p 147 (2002)

Ringing in the New Year holds different meaning for people around the world.  It is also accompanied by different traditions and rituals.  In Pennsylvania German culture, New Years Day is celebrated with a pork and sauerkraut dinner – believed to bring good luck through the coming year.  The sauerkraut is considered a symbol of bounty, but it was also an important staple dish during the cold months for Pennsylvania Dutch/Germans in nineteenth century America.  This is written about in more detail by Willian Woys Weaver, a food scholar who writes extensively about this culture – one that includes Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren religious sects now not only in Pennsylvania, but across the United States.  I recommend reading Weaver’s Sauerkraut Yankees (2002) for some interesting, old-timey recipes for sauerkraut, a section on its origins in Eastern Europe, and its cultural significance for these cultural groups in the past and today.  His most recent book, As American As Shoofly Pie (2013) is especially thought-provoking, as it addresses how new many of the “folk foods” really are for Pennsylvania German culture today (considering not only shoofly pie, but whoopie pies and pot pie).

sauerkraut yankees

Photo credit:

The pig has additional symbolism that continues to reign in Mutterland Germany.  Eating pork in the new year celebrated the pig’s behavior in “rooting forward” – encouraging the consumer to “root forward into the new year” (Weaver 2002: 172).  In Germany today for the New Year, some areas continue the pork and sauerkraut tradition much like their American counterparts.  Those who pass on eating the pig are welcome to pig-sculpted marzipan called “Glücksschweine” or “lucky pigs.”

Glücksfiguren aus Marzipan

Glücksschweine. Photo credit: German Missions in the United States, 2013.  Foto: Patrick Seeger/dpa

To my knowledge, pigs themselves do not recognize New Years.  But if they did, their menu for today would most likely consist of their usual pelleted pig feed.  Pellet feed can include a variety of different supplemental vitamins, but is made up mainly of corn, oats, or soybeans (if not a combination of the three).  Pelleted feed is understood to increase feed efficiency, as it allows the pig to eat more and consume more of the valuable nutrients needed for growing or finishing than if he was served loose batches of the raw material piled together (Miller 2012).  Organic pigs have similar diets, but are restricted to organic-maintained crops in the pellets.  Some farmers may choose to feed their pigs waste products (including cabbage and sauerkraut if available!), and others choose to pasture-raise pigs for a combination of scavenger-based food, grass, and grains.

Pigs were primarily pasture-raised food animals in the past, similar to many of the others we consume today (cows, chickens, etc.).  We can see a shift occurring with the development of experiment stations in the United States – where farmers, veterinarians, and researchers become obsessed with nutrients, calories, and “efficiency.”  This is clearly seen in turn of the century experiment station reports – including those from Kansas State Agricultural College (1904), Montana Agricultural College (1904), and the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (1899).  Experiments in removing pigs from pasture and placing them into “hog houses” were important for the Maryland and Kansas State reports.  In a comparison between different feeding and living conditions with body weight and meat production, their reports concluded that there were great benefits in weight gain through the partial confinement of pigs.  Montana argued that pasture was more important as it indicated, “when running on pasture, hogs will keep in good condition and even gain in live weight on a light grain ration” (Linfield 1904: 54).

pig 3

Photo credit: Patterson 1899.

Researchers were not only concerned with what pigs were eating and how, but also what was potentially eating them before reaching the New Years meal.  The creation of hog dipping methods was also gaining momentum during this time period, with the use of a special hog dipping tank mentioned by the Kansas State College as an important part of the experiment.  The station was concerned, as people who dip today are, with “germ diseases” – more pointedly lice.  The researchers wanted to use a means of getting disinfectants onto the pigs’ bodies without chasing and causing harm to the animals.  The use of a chute – encouraging the animal to move into a dipping tank freely and move out of it with the coaxing of food using a ramp – “kept [hogs] moving steadily without injury” (Otis 1904: 37).  Dipping is still done today when necessary, but spraying for lice has also become a popular solution to discouraging the disease carrying pest from eating hogs.

pig 2

Photo credit: Otis 1904.

Before the efficiency of pig meat production was questioned, pigs overall were symbols of status, wealth and fertility in Germany among other countries.  To provide a pig as a gift to someone during the holidays was extremely significant.  Though pigs are interacted with in much more limited ways today, in part through industrialization, urbanization, and the development of niche food production science, they still carry significant meaning through both pork and sauerkraut meals and marzipan candies.  And much is still invested in maintaining the breeding, rearing, and health of these animals for humans to later consume. Happy New Year!


Linfield, Frederick Bloomfield. Feeding Pigs: For the Years 1903 and 1904. Montana Agricultural College Experiment Station, 1905.

Miller, Tom G. “Swine Feed Efficiency: Influence of Pelleting.” USDA Ag and Food Research Initiative Grant Handout, 2012.

Otis, Daniel Henry. Experiments in Feeding Steers and in Breeding and Feeding Pigs. Experiment Station, Kansas State Agricultural College, 1904.

Patterson, Harry Jacob. Experiments with Feeding Pigs. Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, 1899.

Weaver, William Woys. As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

———. Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways. Stackpole Books, 2002.






Following Food

It is a somber feeling to start this blog the week of Sidney Mintz‘s passing – one of the leading scholars in food studies.  His book Sweetness and Power (1986) introduced me to the possibilities of writing comprehensive histories about food in ways that show how a commodity can be understood differently over time and across space.  Sweetness and Power did just this, and I will never forget the intricate webs along which Mintz followed sugar: from the decorative centerpieces of aristocratic Britain, to the additives in coffee for factory workers.  He took the somewhat dull, unattractive white granular specks and gave them new life.  Really, he revealed the many lives of sugar and the people it affected – from cane to cup.


Photo credit:

This page is dedicated to such followings of food.  It will come as no surprise that like many people I am passionate about food.  I identify as a “food opportunist,” willing to try and eat or cook anything.  Because of this openness, I in turn find the politics through which people decide to eat or cook vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or the like fascinating.  But what I am most fascinated by is how these decisions can be intimately linked to how we feed non-human others.  The politics of feeding cows, pigs, and chickens across the world have come to affect how humans eat – and I wonder why this is and how this happened.

Let me offer an example.  Milk is one of my favorite animal food products because of its versatility.  Not only is it a versatile physical product – a foundation for cheese, ice cream, and yogurt – but it is also a versatile ethical one.  I know some serious milk enthusiasts: those who drink it in support of the industry, a particular nutritional ethic, or as a connoisseur of milk byproducts (turophiles, anyone?)  And there are quite a few people, many close friends of mine, who won’t consume milk for reasons of animal and environmental welfare.  Others claim lactose intolerance, and I have acquaintances who argue it is unnatural for humans to drink non-human milk. I get in conversations with others about milk often – both because of my favoritism for the topic as well as my upbringing on a dairy farm.

got milk

Photo credit: Cornell University “Got Milk?” Campaign, featuring Dean Boor for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 2011.

During a family farm “conference” in 2013 (which I will bring up in this blog later), I visited a raw milk booth where a woman offered me promotional materials about the movement and the importance of grass-fed milk.  We entered a conversation where I let her do all the talking.  She revealed to me that grass-fed diets were the only appropriate diets for dairy cattle – with corn unnatural if not abusive to “force feed” to the animals.  “Are the cows really being force-fed?,” I asked, fishing for an opinion.  “Of course!” was her response, and she cited some literature for me.

On the same day, I walked with an animal nutritionist who knew some of the farmers leading the “conference.”  He looked out in the distance at some cross-bred dairy cattle owned by the farmer hosting the event.  They were nibbling on brown patches of grass in a field.  “They’re starving,” he told me briskly, “they need grain or they’ll be stunted.”  I assumed he meant in both physical growth and milk production, but the latter was of greater concern for him.

These two brief interactions, from the same day, at the same “conference,” helped place my interest in food into perspective.  I was struck by how these understandings of cow health and cow diet diverged, why one person looked at health in one way, the other in another.  And the commoditization of these views!  Buying one type of milk supported one practice.  Buying milk from this label supported another.  I wanted to know how this happened.  I wanted to talk to more people from both points of view.  Different ones.  I wanted to look at the cows more closely, buy their milk more carefully, drink their milk more thoughtfully.  I was hooked.

Now here I am, in a graduate program learning how I can find the answers and write about them for you.  I hope you will comment and ask questions if you stumble upon this page – ideas I will certainly consider as I continue to explore my thoughts and feelings on these subjects.  Human food.  Animal food.  Microbial food.  Food for food.  Following food is the task.  Logging its many pathways (economically, ecologically, politically, and culturally) will be the result.