The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, of which I was a member, released its report today: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. This was a two-year investigation of the effects of our current system of intensive animal production on the environment, communities, human health, and the animals themselves. For me, this was an opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens. The big issues? Antibiotics and waste. The big surprise? Laws exist; they just aren’t being enforced. This was quite an education.
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So the Wall Street Journal thinks doing anything about the “thicket of hard-to-cut programs” in the Farm Bill is hopeless. If anything, it looks like subsidies will go up. Reason #1: $80 million worth of agribusiness lobbying last year. Reason #2: this is an election year. If you aren’t up on the ins and outs of Farm Bill politics, this article is a good place to begin. Check out the interactive map and complain! It won’t hurt and it might help at some point.
According to a report in Food Chemical News, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley who has written extensively about agricultural policy, says “environmental populists” in the United States and the European Union have imposed on Africa, their [our?] favoring of “small, traditional farms that grow organic crops and heirloom varieties…[equating] agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food.” The resulting “hostility to science-based farming” has been devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions. How? “No African country allows cultivation of biotech crops except South Africa.” Is biotechnology the solution to Africa’s agricultural problems? As I read it, the technology is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go (see the March 20 Nature article on development of drought-resistant crops). But then, I still think Africa’s agricultural problems would be easier to solve with social, not necessarily technological, changes. But I guess that makes me an environmental populist. How about you?
Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, died last week at the age of 98. He had a long and varied career, but in the context of food systems he is famous for having revolutionized U.S. agricultural policy. Instead of paying farmers not to produce food, he encouraged farmers to produce as much food as possible. They did, and indeed produced so much corn that new uses had to be found for it. Voila! High fructose corn syrup! The movie, King Corn, includes an interview with Mr. Butz. He was proud of having so greatly increased U.S. food production. Indeed, the number of calories in the U.S. food supply increased from about 3,200 per day in the mid-1970s to the present 3,900 per day, with all the consequences that I discuss in Food Politics and in What to Eat. His passing marks the end of an era.
Here’s another great piece to read on a cold, snowy day. Michael Pollan’s latest is a beautifully constructed synthesis of the meaning of two bad things that happened this year: Bee Colony Collapse Disorder and community-acquired Multiple Resistance Staphylococcus aureus. Both, he shows, are the result of industrialized agriculture. Bees are migratory workers? No wonder they are stressed. The question, Pollan says, is “not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how.” Read it and get busy.
The USDA makes data on farm households and the economics of farming readily available. You can even get the numbers you need by state. A handy resource, no?
A press release today from the Organic Center announces publication of a major study by Brian Halweil examining changes in nutrient levels of farmed crops in the United States. Halweil summarizes evidence that food crops are less nutritious now than they used to be and that organic crops are more nutritious than conventional. While such findings seem intuitively obvious, they are very difficult to prove. For one thing, methods for evaluating the nutritional content of foods were not as accurate 50 years ago as they are now. For another, the samples may not really be comparable. Even so, this report is worth having for addressing the questions in a serious way. Read and enjoy!