Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Omnivore's Delusion

Reaching into my stack of unread papers, I pull out Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer who has a different opinion about the current state of Western agricultural practices than many armchair food policy "analysts," who, he says
does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his products to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainable, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families. ... He is an expert about me on the strength of one book....
So he presents a very different view of what organic and industrial farming looks like to dispel common myths and stereotypes.
The results of organic production are so, well, troublesome. ... molds, fungus, and bugs increase.... Some of the largest farms in the country are organic -- and are giant organizations dependent upon lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking of tasks in order to save the sensitive conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination. They do not spend much time talking about that at the Whole Foods store.

The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most "industrial" are the most likely to be owned by ... family farmers.... Most livestock is produced by family farms, and even the poultry industry, with its contracts and vertical integration, relies on family farms to contract for the production of the birds....
He makes a number of points about attempts to make livestock raising more "humane." Turkeys that are "range fed" are prone to weasel attacks and they don't come in when it rains, just stare up at the rain with their beaks open until they drown. Chickens are kept in separate cages to prevent their pecking at, wounding, even killing each other to establish the pecking order. Pigs are penned in tight cages (outside of CA which has outlawed them) because the larger wooden crates lead to certain problems, like pigs laying down on their offspring killing them:
Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because ... being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go. As is being eaten by your mother, which I've seen sows do to newborn pigs as well. ...

Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with "natural" fertilizer.
He addresses the practical difficulties he has experienced of clover and legume production, including freezing rain, increased bug growth, and using twice as much water and land to grow the same amount of corn. Pollan proposed a program of mandatory urban composting that could be trucked to the farms to provide green manure. Hurst's calculations show that would amount to 5 million truckloads to fertilizer just the US corn crop. "Now, that would be a carbon footprint!"

He closes with a plea to listen to farmers and try to understand why they make their choices.

I use chemicals and diesel fuel to accomplish the tasks my grandfather used to do with sweat, and I use a computer instead of a lined notebook and a pencil, but I'm still farming the same land he did 80 years ago, and the fund of knowledge that our family has accumulated about our small part of Missouri is valuable. ... By using those "industrial" tools sensibly, we can [feed the world] and leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us., back in the day, had a two-piece response (one, two) which I expected to be far more negative than it is. It amounts more to trying to clarify that real food policy analysts understand some of the nuances better than armchair analysts who have only read one of the popular books. But if those books are being written by the real analysts, why aren't they successfully communicating the differences between industrial family farms and factory farms? Plotkin takes greater pains to argue against even needing livestock raising in the first place and continues to claim that farmers care less about their animals' welfare than they used to. Another interesting quote from his repsonse:
Lets face it: being able to eat a strictly meatless diet is only possible because of worldwide industrial food production.  (Not to mention that it is a diet only able to be adopted by people who can afford, financially or health wise, to be so picky about their food.)
I'm not saying that it isn't possible to eat a local meatless diet--although I suspect it would be difficult through those long, cold New England winters I grew up in--but that to assume this type of diet is a realistic possibility for everyone on earth is naive and underestimates the dramatic changes that would need to take place to make that possible.

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