Sunday, August 16, 2009

Farmers on food

Blake Hurst puts forward some superficially attractive arguments in a July 30 article in the journal of the American Enterprise Institute (The American) that was picked up by Arts and Letters Daily and widely noticed. Hurst is a farmer, and when he puts forward the notion that “farmers have reasons for their actions, and society should listen to them as we embark upon this reappraisal of our agricultural system,” he strikes a chord that, for understandable reasons, resonates deeply. Of course we should as a society listen to farmers if we are contemplating changes to the agricultural system—just as we should listen to forestry workers if we are contemplating changes to the way in which we grow and harvest our forests, or fishers if we are contemplating changes to that industry. But which farmers, which foresters, which fishers? Foresters who have a vested interest in endless clear cutting, or foresters familiar with very different, and far more sustainable techniques? The fishers who were lobbying governments not to cut back on the cod fishery even as the cod stocks were in free fall, or the fishers who were taking a different approach?

Michael Pollan listened to more than a few farmers as he was writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but they are not the farmers Hurst would like us to listen to; Hurst's article is entitled “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals,” but in fact he is arguing against many farmers just as much as he is against many intellectuals. Leave aside for the moment those committed to a purely organic approach. Farmers such as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia disdain the “organic empire” but nevertheless argue that small to medium-sized integrated farms can be just as efficient as much larger factory farms while using far fewer chemicals, causing little or no damage to the environment, providing food that is far healthier—and imposing far less cruelty on non-human animals. Hurst doesn’t want us to listen to farmers such as Salatin, any more than he wants us to listen to those farming organically; he’d prefer to characterize all opposition to large-scale industrial farming as coming from “intellectuals”—by which he clearly means to imply, people out of touch with reality.

But the reality Hurst is himself in touch with is limited on every side. “We have to farm ‘industrially’ to feed the world,” Hurst asserts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that massive American subsidies for large American producers have allowed them to undercut producers in many developing countries and effectively destroy the agricultural base there. “Consumers benefit from cheap food,” Hurst asserts, and to him it is an unproblematic truth. Nothing here about the degree to which the real costs (to human health, to the environment) are externalized through the current cheap food system. Nothing here about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has been caused by all the herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi-Missouri system. For Hurst, “the biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides.” Has he even heard of the dead zone in the Gulf? Characteristically, Hurst makes no attempt here to actually weigh the evidence. Indeed, he does not even directly acknowledge that herbicides and pesticides may in any way cause damage to the environment; he appears willing to see only the benefits, entirely unwilling to acknowledge any of the true costs of the cheap food he is producing.

If Hurst ignores all evidence of the environmental and health costs of industrial agriculture, he is even more blind to the extraordinary level of cruelty to animals it entails. “Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty,” is his line. “That’s something the critics of industrial farming never seem to understand.” Which critics those might be he never says; certainly not Michael Pollan, or Alice Waters, or Eric Schlosser, or Paul Roberts, or, for that matter, Peter Singer. When it comes to cruelty towards animals, the central point that all those critics have made is not that farming suddenly from the 1950s onwards began to become cruel and bloody and dirty when it hadn’t been before. Their point is that, with the shift to industrial farming, it went from a level of messy and a level of painful and a level of dirty that was relatively low to one that was extraordinarily high—cruelly so for the animals, and dangerously so for humans as well. Chickens crammed together in tiny cages, pigs unable even to turn around for their entire lives, cattle living 24/7 in their own manure, animals fed antibiotics endlessly. Hurst quotes Matthew Scully’s description of such practices as “an obvious evil so sickening and horrendous it would leave us ashen.” How does he argue against this point of view? He doesn’t even attempt to rebut the vast array of evidence on industrial poultry or hog farming. Instead he turns to anecdotes concerning non-industrial poultry and hog farming. His argument in favor of industrially farmed poultry? That a farmer he knew owned a lot of turkeys who died because he had allowed them to stay out of doors. His argument in support of the way in which pigs are treated in industrial style hog operations? That a hog he had been responsible for as a child (and as a 4-H member) fell over on its piglets, crushing them. “We can’t change nature,” Hurst concludes. Pigs will “always be crushed by their mothers,” chickens “will always provide lunch to any number of predators,” and so on.

There is a deep dishonesty to this argument. Hurst argues that “we can’t change nature” only when it suits him to do so. If it’s a question of breeding chickens so fat that they can’t walk so that we can have cheap food, it’s OK to change nature. If it’s a question of killing the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico so that we can have cheap food, it’s OK to change nature. If it’s a question of developing new chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides so that we can have cheap food, we can change nature. But if it comes to reducing the cruelty we cause animals when we farm, suddenly “we can’t change nature.”

I would certainly not go so far as to suggest that Hurst is dishonest throughout his argument, but even where there is no dishonesty he is continually muddying rather than clarifying. Here’s one of many examples: Hurst tries to argue against organic agriculture through sentences such as this one: “Some of the largest farms in the country are organic,” he asserts, “—and are giant organizations dependent on lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking tasks in order to save the conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination.” Here he muddles at least three separate and very substantial issues: organic vs. non-organic, small vs. large, machinery vs. human labor. Each one is large, interesting, and difficult to resolve, even when they are disentangled from one another. But Hurst evidently has no interest in making that sort of effort; what he is interested in is discrediting those who oppose industrial farming—and even those who want to ask tough questions about it. In fact few advocates of organic farming these days would argue that organic farms need be small—or that organic farming is a silver bullet that can solve all the problems.

To be sure, Hurst seems to be enlightened in some of his own farming methods—notably, no-till farming. I am no farmer, but everything I have read about no-till farming suggest it is indeed a positive development—one that preserves the quality as well as the quantity of topsoil. It does indeed require the use of some herbicide and some fertilizer, and for that reason has, in the words of Paul Roberts, “earned the scorn of some in the alternative farming movement.” But many other opponents of industrial farming have applauded the introduction of no-till farming; on this one many of them are on his side. Hurst again and again portrays opponents of industrial farming as all of a piece, all of them always seeing things in black and white terms, all of them unquestioningly pro-organic, all of them unwilling to recognize that “farming is more complicated than a simple morality play.” Has Hurst read any of the books that he dismisses with such contempt (and that he never actually quotes from)? Here, for example, is Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

To grow the plants and animals that made up my [organic] meal, no pesticides found their way into the watershed, no pesticides found their way into any farmworker’s bloodstream, no nitrogen run-off or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written. If the high price of my all-organic meal is weighed against the comparatively low price it exacted from the larger world, as it should be, it begins to look…like a real bargain.
And yet, and yet… An industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world. The lot of the workers who harvested the vegetables… is not appreciably different from that of those on non-organic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts. As for the cows, they may well have spent time in a actual pasture, …but the organic label guarantees no such thing. And while the organic farms I visited don’t receive direct government subsidies [as do almost all conventional farms], they do receive other subsidies from taxpayers, notably subsidized water and electricity in California. … [And], perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as is its conventional counterpart.

So who is the one failing to recognize that “farming is more complicated than a simple morality play”? If anyone may fairly be accused of failing to take account of the degree to which calculating the costs and benefits of different farming methods is a complex matter, it is surely Hurst rather than Pollan.

Many organic farmers—like many non-organic farmers, and like many intellectuals, on all sides of all these issues—recognize that there are complex issues involved. Sometimes larger is better. Sometimes chemicals are appropriate. Organic is not always the answer. There is no one silver bullet. But change must happen. I recognize that some readers looking for an honest attempt to untangle and resolve some of the complexities are highly sceptical about vegetarianism. Others may be mistrustful for different reasons of Pollan or Singer or Schlosser. In that case I’d recommend Paul Roberts's The End of Food (2008). Roberts is to my mind dishearteningly lacking in concern over cruelty to animals. And he is by no means unsympathetic to arguments as to the necessity to produce large amounts of food to feed the world. Yet he sheds light on a good many of the complexities. In the end, for reasons quite unconnected to any concern over the treatment of animals, he too concludes that present-day industrial farming practices are largely unsustainable—and that humans must reverse the trend of the past few generations, and learn to eat less of the flesh of non-human animals. As for Blake Hurst? This is a farmer who began his writing career in 2002 defending the politics of George W. Bush-style Republicanism. This is a farmer who blogs with the likes of Bill O’Reilly on the extreme right-wing “Political Mavens” website, where he muses about how he and his fellow farmers should maybe consider “making our living raising crops for the energy market, and guys with ponytails can raise food for the rest of you in Community Gardens in Greenwich Village.” Like the rest of his writing, “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals” adds heat to the debate, but no light.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this!--esp. the paragraph on "we can't change nature."
    I'm so tired of the pigs crush their piglets/ animals die outdoors argument. It's so old and tired and doesn't justify the cages at all.
    Can't change nature? Has he seen the publications on genetically engineered animals that are sent to farmers? It's one big genetic party, with sows getting so large and having so many piglets in a litter that some people's jobs are to kill the extra piglets every birth.