Friday, July 31, 2009

The Omnivore's Delusion?

I've been of two minds when it comes to food. On the one hand, I tend to go for more organic meat and produce when I go shopping. I tend to want to eat meat that was produced humanely.

On the other hand, I tend to get wary of food critics like Michael Pollen who tend to put down anything that reeks of moderenization. I chafe at those who think that organic farming will lead to less foodborn illnesses and the like.

So, this article by a real live farmer tends to play into my doublemindedness. Farmer Blake Hurst makes some good points, such as the fact that most of the people who talk about food and farming are not involved in farming at all and don't understand it. He makes the point that just like we don't expect doctors to use the same instruments that were used a century ago, we should not expect farmers to farm and live like their grandparents. Here is what Hurst has to say about a businessman he encounters on a flight:

He was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets,
projections, and marketing studies. He hasn’t used a slide rule in his career
and wouldn’t make projections with tea leaves or soothsayers. He does not blame
witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product 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 sustainably, too cruel to treat their
animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health,
and their families. I would not presume to criticize his car, or the size of his
house, or the way he runs his business. But he is an expert about me, on the
strength of one book, and is sharing that expertise with captive audiences
every time he gets the chance. Enough, enough, enough.

As I said, he makes some good points that those of us who aren't farmers need to hear. That said, I think he sometimes paints every criticism of "industrial farming" with too wide a brush. Some complaints are legit. For example, I tend to want to buy chicken or beef that was produced humanely. I have a hard time seeing animals penned up in cages and treated less like animals than as a plant. Hurst seems to believe that this is much better than what goes on in nature:

Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination. Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.

Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of "industrial farming" like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don't seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I've read whom have actually visited a turkey farm. But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today's turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.

Like most young people in my part of the world, I was a 4-H member. Raising cattle and hogs, showing them at the county fair, and then sending to slaughter those animals that we had spent the summer feeding, washing, and training. We would then tour the packing house, where our friend was hung on a rail, with his loin eye measured and his carcass evaluated. We farm kids got an early start on dulling our moral sensibilities. I'm still proud of my win in the Atchison County Carcass competition of 1969, as it is the only trophy I have ever received. We raised the hogs in a shed, or farrowing (birthing) house. On one side were eight crates of the kind that the good citizens of California have outlawed. On the other were the kind of wooden pens that our critics would have us use, where the sow could turn around, lie down, and presumably act in a natural way. Which included lying down on my 4-H project, killing several piglets, and forcing me to clean up the mess when I did my chores before school. The crates protect the piglets from their mothers. Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and 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.

Again, Hurst makes good points. I'm not a farmer, Hurst is. He knows what goes on in agriculture more than I do. But, does that mean I should not say anything or have any concerns about how one might raise their crops and animals? I agree it makes more sense to have turkeys not drown in the rain, but I do fear at times, that Hurst's views tend to see the cows and pigs as "dumb animals" and nothing more.

My other concern is that it almost seems that Hurst is simply asking people to simply trust him since he is the expert. While one should be wary when someome like Pollen is running around telling people how to grow food, I also feel I should have some healthy skepticism with experts. Just because someone has a more intimate knowledge of something doesn't mean they are automatically correct. Experts can be nothing more than shills for a group, ignoring the red flags.

Read the article. I'd like to hear people's opinions.

Read the article. I am interested in hearing other people's views.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I read and enjoyed Pollen's In Defense of Food, but all these books do need to be read critically. But I think Pollen is more on the right side than the wrong side here. The problem is less about how farmers raise crops and animals (the saw dust thing for poultry is just way overblown by many who are aghast when they speak of the supposed horror of it all). The problem is more in the processed food industry's drive for ever greater profits instead of the benefit and health of their customers, government food and farm policy geared at lots of cheap food and big processed food industry profits, instead of food quality, and a public who knows far too little about agriculture and the food they eat. The rule of thumb that it's much better to purchase food as close to it's natural state is a very good one. And there are certainly ways we can improve production for better quality. (It seems often forgotten by some farming and food industry critics that organic doesn't necessarily mean quality.) We do rely too much on corn in our food system. That's the one production issue that I think is worth pushing on. Shifting more to grass fed and pasture raised meats would be of higher quality and better nutritional value. And there must be a way to keep turkeys from drowning while still giving them access to pastures. The comment that "free range" is just simply stupid and impractical seems a bit out of whack to me.