Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Antibiotics and Milk in Quebec

This past weekend, I was discussing milk with a friend in Massachusetts. Although we are neighbours, how our milk is produced could not be more different. One of the main differences between conventional dairy farms in the USA and those in Quebec, is the use of antibiotics and growth hormone. Our average herd size is also considerably smaller, 52 in Quebec versus 700 south of the border, and more likely to be a family operation.

In Quebec, most cows consume food produced on the dairy farm itself. In addition to pasture, feed can include hays, grains and silage. Vitamins and minerals may be added to the feed. In the USA, conventional milk producers can also add antibiotics to the feed. However in Quebec, this practice is illegal. Similarly, in the USA, dairy farmers routinely use recombinant bovine growth hormone (BGH) to increase milk production, but in Canada the use of rBGH (known in Canada as recombinant bovine somatratropin; rBST) is not approved so this practice is not allowed.

That's not to say that Quebec dairy farms do not use antibiotics at all. Bovine mastitis, an infection of the teats, is a common problem in dairy farms, affecting about 80% of Quebec herds, and 39% to 92% of Canadian herds, based on data collected that looked at the most common cause, infection with s. aureus. When discovered, mastitis is routinely treated with systemic antibiotics. Cows may also be treated with antibiotics for other infections, and dry cows (cows not currently producing milk), I believe, may be given antibiotics prophylactic ally to prevent mastitis.

Organic farms are not immune from mastitis and other infections, and in Quebec farmers may use antibiotics twice during per year on any given cow, however most organic farmers will try to avoid antibiotic use altogether and use husbandry and milking methods that focus on prevention. Organic farmers may also try to treat mastitis without antibiotics.

I looked for an article comparing the incidence of mastitis or antibiotic use in traditional versus organic herds, but couldn't find one. My inclination is to believe that organic farms have a lower incidence of mastitis than conventional farms, and also use less antibiotics.

For me, the incidence of mastitis and the responsible use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is more of an issue than whether a farmer use antibiotics at all. And while I suspect that in Quebec, at least, conventional farms are probably trying as hard as organic farmers to keep their herds free from disease and lower use of antibiotics (I saw loads of articles raising awareness of antibiotic resistance and encouraging preventative practices), I will continue to buy organic milk whenever I can because I believe in the overall philosophy of organic farming, and want to support those farmers who have chosen this more difficult route. But it's also nice to know that conventional milk from Quebec farms may not be too different.

References: 1) Fédération ds producteurs du lait du Québec. The journey of milk from the farm to your table. Accessed April 27, 2009. 2) Olde Riekerink R and Barkema H. Mastitis: The Canadian Perspective. WCDS Advances in Dairy Technology (2006) Volume 18:275-283. 3) Canadian Bovine Mastitis Research Network (CBMRN) website. Accessed April 27, 2009. 4) Fédération d'Agriculture Biologique du Québec (FABQ) website. Accessed April 27, 2009. 5) Ecological Agriculture Projects. Treating Mastitis without Antibiotics. Accessed April 27, 2009.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Decay Glorious Decay

First there was recycling. Now there is composting. We know we should be doing it, but for many of us, owning our own composting system is just not feasible. Either we don't have the yard, the space, or sometimes, even the lifestyle.

Don't despair, curbside composting is here!

If you don't have a composter, Compost Montreal will happily pick up your kitchen waste for $5 per week and deliver it to one of Montreal's composting sites. They supply you with a compost bucket lined with a compostable bag. On the specified evening, simply leave it on your front porch and they'll take care of the rest. In the spring, if you want to receive finished compost for your own garden, let them know and they'll deliver it to you.

The service is available to businesses and residents in the NDG, Plateau Mont Royal, Mile End, Outremont, St-Henri and Rosemont neighbourhoods.

Just about any vegetable and garden waste can be composted, as well as shredded newspaper, paper towels, pet fur, bread, coffee filters, coffee grounds, tea bags and more. For a more complete list on the Compost Montreal site, click here.

Alternatively, if you want to try your hand at composting yourself, you can order a variety of composters from your local eco-quartier and some major home improvement centres.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

CSA Baskets

It's that time again. In fact, it's probably pretty close to past that time. I'm talking about signing up for summer community supported agriculture (CSA) baskets, of course.

With its roots in Europe, CSA rapidly expanded to North America in the 1980s. In came to Montreal about 10 years ago thanks to the efforts of Equiterre, a non-profit organisation promoting ecological and socially-just initiatives. CSA encourages local farms to use sustainable agricultural practices and encourages the community to get involved in local farms. It does this by creating a direct link between the local farmer and the consumer or community. The consumer benefits by having direct access to fresh, local produce at an affordable price, and farmers are guaranteed buyers willing to pay a fair price for their crops.

So how does community supported agriculture work? The consumer chooses a local farm and agrees to buy a certain amount of the farm's harvest. The consumer then partly pays the farmer in advance for the produce, which is delivered weekly to his home or a local drop-off spot. The produce that is delivered will vary each week, according to the farmer's harvest, and will also vary from farm to farm. The consumer is now a partner in the farm's operation and is often invited and encouraged to spend time on the farm, either by helping out, participating in harvest festivals, or just dropping by to say "hi" and see how the farm operates.

In the Montreal area, CSA is extremely well organised: Finding a farm to participate in is relatively easy. Every year, Equiterre make available a list of farms (french) through a searchable database on its website who are actively seeking partners. All you have to do is match your a farm with a convenient drop-off and make contact with the appropriate farm. Each week, at the locations and time specified, you show up and pick up your basket of farm-fresh, organic produce or meats.

The cost per basket varies from about $10/week for a simple single-person produce basket, to $38/week for a gourmet basket suitable for a family. Meat baskets cost more and often function on a slightly different system. A lot of farms have more interested participants than they have produce available. Many farms fill their available spots by the end of April.

Equiterre estimates that by buying directly from the farm, participants are not only supporting small, local, family farms but that they are also paying 10% to 50% less for their organic produce than they would have at the supermarket, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices. Not to mention the fact that we know exactly where your food is coming from! Farms in the Equiterre network are all certified organic, or they are in the process of obtaining their certification. This means that none of the farms use pesticides or synthetic fertilisers, and that they use sustainable farming methods.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Hello and welcome to The Mindful Table.

This blog was born out of my own desire to feed my passion for food sustainably, and my frustration at not easily being able to find shops and resources to support my choices. This, despite living in the Montreal-area since I was a child, and being active in vegetarian and food activism since the 1990s.

These days, I no longer consider myself a vegetarian. A couple of years ago I started eating sustainably-raised meat supplied by local farms, as well as fish and seafood from sustainable fisheries. However finding these food choices in Montreal takes a bit of detective work. This surprised me immensely given the size of this city and our collective passion for food (not to mention our city's reputation for activism!). This blog is to help me record my sustainable discoveries, and for me to share them with you.

A few notes: For me, sustainable food isn't restricted to organic and local. Although these are practices I strongly support, I believe the labels themselves are only one part of a greater equation. For example, should I buy organic apples from BC or conventionally farmed apples from a local, family-run farm? Similarly, while I'm thrilled by the recent surge in popularity and availability of fair trade products, fair trade is also only a label. At some point, I'm sure I'll write more about my thoughts on these and similar topics.

Finally, sustainable dining goes beyond the food on my plate. It includes the plate and all that goes into getting the food onto that plate. Cookware, tableware, entertaining, backyard gardening, dining in, dining out, and even recipes, all of these will have a place on this blog.