Is any pretty-sounding answer a good one?

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker on campus that I found rather interesting. His name is Robert Paarlberg and he’s a political scientist at Wellesley College (he’s also done some guest lectures at Harvard). His research focuses on international agriculture and environmental policy. Out of his studies, he’s written several popular press books. Paarlberg was invited to MSU as a part of a lecture series sponsored by CANR that focused on feeding the world with science-based agriculture. I got to cover his lecture as a freelance gig, so I won’t go too in-depth about the presentation itself. However, there were a few things that struck me as…well, like I said earlier: interesting.

Dr. Paarlberg is a big believer in precision agriculture being the main way that we will feed a growing population by 2050 (9.3 billion around the world that will have to be fed, clothed and housed). He explained how precision agriculture is producing more on less land with less water, fertilizer, chemicals, tillage, etc. (the usual), while organic production, in his opinion, is too slow, labor intensive and expensive to reach that goal (although he was supportive of some organic methods).

Now, I’m not saying that I disagree with anything he said. However, I didn’t expect for the audience to be eating right out of his hands.

On first impressions, I would have figured this audience was more likely to be found at a Michael Pollan lecture than a lecture on precision ‘Big Ag’ agriculture. So, you can understand a little of my wonderment when here they were nodding and smiling at every point Paarlberg made. This struck me as extremely odd.

Does it matter what charismatic, well-spoken people say as long as what they say sounds good? Do non-farm citizens want the answer when it comes to their food, or do they really just want an answer (and preferably one from a smooth talker)? I’d be really interested in hearing what other people think. It seems to me that agriculture could lose the power of its advocates – like Paarlberg – if those advocates are just the mirror image of anti-farm advocates.

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Should we thank PETA and HSUS?

Yesterday I, like many people in the agriculture world, tuned in to watch Oprah when I heard that she and her staff of over 300 people were giving up meat and all other animal products for a week-long “vegan challenge”. Now, it’s no secret that Oprah has had her issues with the livestock industry, so it’s also no surprise that when the agriculture community heard about what she was doing on yesterday’s episode that the defenses went right up. Instead of demonizing livestock farming, however, the episode (except for a few criticisms here and there) overall focused on consumers understanding where their food comes from in order to make an informed choice about their meal options.

As food “experts” (although I don’t think that title applies to either person), Oprah invited author Michael Pollan (read about my encounter with Pollan here) and veganist Kathy Freston to join her for the episode. Surprisingly, Pollan almost seemed like the voice of reason on the couch, stating how he thought meat is an important part of the diet and that “eating meat isn’t evil”. Reporter Lisa Ling also visited a Cargill plant and learned how our meat goes from the pasture/feedlot to our plate. Cargill did a great job representing agriculture and everyone in animal ag should be proud of their willingness to open their doors to the cameras.

One of the things that I thought was very interesting about the Cargill tour is a comment that Pollan made after the segment. In general, he noted how animal rights groups like PETA were to thank for the advancements agriculture has made in our processing facilities.

My first thought – as displayed in this tweet of mine – was “PETA and HSUS DO NOT get credit for improving agriculture. Ugh…..”

What did he mean? Is he saying we should THANK them for their never-ceasing pressure? We should be GRATEFUL for their petitions and lawsuits because we now have better slaughter facilities? I DO NOT THINK SO.

But then I got this tweet from @antiquecutie: “@sollmana why not? if there was no pressure…they would never change.”

Wait. What?

That got me thinking and, to be totally honest, way confused. I do understand that pressure from animal rights activists since the time of when ‘The Jungle‘ was released have played a part in the industry’s advancement. But still, these groups aren’t about advancing agriculture – they’re about ending it. The fact that changes occur because of their campaigns seems to me more of a side effect. I am much more grateful for people like Temple Grandin who understand the role of animal agriculture and seek to improve it, without an agenda to put an end to owning livestock.

What do you think? The question from @antiquecutie definitely made me question my own beliefs (which is never a bad thing), but I’d like to hear from others. Should we be thankful for groups like PETA and HSUS, since their pressure has played a role (to what extent is debatable) in our improvement?

An hour with Michael Pollan

I’m going to preface this post by saying that Michael Pollan throws me for a loop, no matter how much I learn about his ideas. I’m sure many people have experienced this, but it is very hard to listen to someone and agree with some things they say, but disagree very strongly with others. The most we can do is tell ourselves over and over again to listen as best we can, despite how hard that is.

There. I’ve said it. Now onto “the rest of the story”. (Gosh, I miss Paul Harvey!)

The seminar yesterday afternoon gave students the chance to ask Pollan questions about anything. It only lasted an hour, so only about 8-10 questions got asked. People questioned him on anything from hunger to genetics to urban farming. The audience was fairly diverse, with people from both agriculture and non-ag backgrounds.

In terms of Pollan’s answers, anyone who has read his books–or even skimmed them for that matter–probably didn’t hear anything new. We are producing too much of the worst foods for us. Farmers and consumers are being hurt by the system. Cheap food isn’t really cheap if you look at external costs. Same old, same old.

I will start out on the positive side. There are things that Pollan says that aren’t all bad. America has a huge number of health issues (heart disease, obesity, diabetes) that are related to diet. More food that is nutrient-rich and served in appropriate portions should be made available and affordable. The list continues.

On the flip side of that, Pollan and I will tend to disagree on several things, as well. I truly believe that the perpetuation of diet-related diseases has a strong correlation to personal choice. We have stopped holding individuals and parents responsible for the food that goes into ours and our childrens’ mouths because it is easier to blame bad food choices on food processors, producers and marketers. We have stopped hold individuals and parents responsible for their own and their childrens’ physical activity. If you make the unhealthy choice to sit on your duff and play video games, surf the web, etc. instead of going for a walk, then my pity for your weight gain and high cholesterol significantly decreases. There are plenty of Anericans who live a healthy lifestyle without attacking the food industry–they realize they have a choice and use it responsibly.

Other disagreements with Pollan circle more about his ideas of solutions to problems. While I agree with a lot of issues facing our society regarding diet, I disagree with how to solve them. One example that is salient in my mind is that Pollan recognized that water and access to water will become an increasing problem for agriculture in the Western states. While he gave no solution to this, he said that he opposed the development of drought-resistent crops because crops should be developed to meet the needs of, not one weather condition, but many. In my mind, drought-resistent crops are a great technology to sustain crop production–and I mean any crop, not just corn.

Of course, these are just my opinions. I’d love to hear yours! Feel free to leave any comments–I’m always interested to hear others’ viewpoints.

If you’re interested in seeing some other coverage of both Michael Pollan’s and rancher Trent Loos’s visits to Michigan State yesterday, make sure to read this story in the Lansing State Journal and this report from WILX-10.