Opinion: The Luxury to Criticize!

Harold Harpster, Professor of Animal Science
Department of Dairy & Animal Science
The Pennsylvania
State University

I stop at the end of the lane to retrieve the day’s mail and folded around the usual stack of bills is my latest issue of TIME magazine. Before driving into the farm I take a quick look at the cover. What’s this? A package of bright red hamburger is center stage with a label across the package: “WARNING: This hamburger may be hazardous to your health. Why the American food system is bad for our bodies, our economy, and our environment- and what some visionaries are trying to do about it.” Immediately below the package in huge bold print are the words “ The Real Cost of Cheap Food”, by Bryan Walsh, Time’s  “Energy and Climate” writer. My immediate thought is “Here we go – some pseudo- expert who knows next to nothing about agriculture, has decided to trash our way of life once again”. I read the article right then and there and my first impression is certainly correct!

Yep, it’s become as predictable as fall follows summer; someone is going to bash our farming systems, especially livestock production, on a regular basis. If we may digress for just a moment, do you remember a book that came out in 1993 entitled “ Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture” by Jeremy Rifkin? It was a ridiculous account of how every problem known to mankind could be traced back to the beef industry. I remember one reviewer stating, “This book doesn’t cite a single scientific reference, not even a bad one”! Well thankfully the public seemed to recognize nonsense when it saw it, the book was soon forgotten, and Mr. Rifkin has since moved on to criticize a number of other industries.

Now I can’t say for sure if Mr. Walsh read Mr. Rifkin’s book or not but it sure follows the same old issues of the book and other more recent condemnations like the “Food, Inc” movie currently making the rounds in theaters. All the usual tirades against animal agriculture that we have come to expect from the pseudo-experts are in the article- animal confinement and cruelty, meat laced with antibiotics, meat as the cause of our human obesity and other medical problems, farm animals causing global warming and cropland fertilization and use of animal manure polluting our waterways.

Now let’s be fair, no one could expect Mr. Walsh to be an expert in all things agricultural, right? But one would think that if you knew you needed more information you would search out a knowledgeable source, correct? Well apparently not if the goal is sell magazines!! Yes, Walsh reportedly approached the NCBA for their help a few days before the deadline and was given a half-dozen beef industry experts to interview and fact sheets on modern beef production. And what was the result of all this information that would have equipped him to objectively look at both sides of the issue? A dozen words from Kristina Butts, the manager of legislative affairs for NCBA, who refuted the development of antibiotic resistance in humans from their use in farm animals. That’s right, 12 total words in an article of seven pages!! When challenged in an interview by the AgriTalk radio station as to why he chose to ignore the other side of the story Mr. Walsh noted that “this is the story we decided to do and this is the angle we’ve been taking” and that Time magazine now will “allow the writer to look at it and make some of his own judgments’”. In other words, at Time magazine, there is no longer even a pretense of balanced reporting and truthfulness!

Understandably there have been many public comments on the article from various individuals and agricultural groups since this issue reached the public. The usual sentiments expressed are 1) the story is full of bias, half-truths, and outright lies; and 2) The once proud Time Magazine publication has decided it is no longer interested in balanced reporting of the news but rather in negative sensationalism that sells magazines regardless of the truth. It occurs to me the people of this country should consider a third viewpoint: Let’s be thankful we live in a country where the majority of our people can relax on full stomachs and take the time to criticize the hands that feed us!!! That’s a luxury much of the world doesn’t have! I suspect the estimated one billion people in the world who go to bed hungry have other priorities on their minds than finding fault with the most successful agricultural system in the history of mankind.

Is this to say, “All is well” in our food system and we must not question and continually re-evaluate it? Of course not! On the livestock side, there are obviously careless farmers out there who don’t properly care for their animals or land just as there are thousands of careless pet owners!  But overall, the system is working and most thinking individuals know it. Even Mr. Walsh admits in the article, “You’ve never had it so good, at least in terms of what you pay for every calorie you eat. According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966”. Of course he presents that fact as a negative, i.e., we should pay a lot more for food by demanding it be produced “organically”!

The subtitle of the article proclaims in big bold print “America’s Food Crisis and How to Fix It”. So what are Mr. Walsh’s solutions to fix it all? All we have to do is 1. Have a lot more small farmers who produce organically, and 2. Eat more greens and less meat. He notes that organic methods can produce as much yield as conventional but will take far more labor, a good thing in times of scarce jobs. More farmers and more farm labor sounds good but does anyone really think we can feed the world by returning to pre-1950’s methods? And I wonder if Mr. Walsh has seriously tried to find competent farm laborers lately? Simple solutions to complex problems; what else would you expect from someone lacking the real facts?

I carefully reviewed the letters to the editor in the two issues that followed the one containing the article. I was surprised the tally was six letters supporting today’s farmers and only one agreeing with the “down with modern agriculture” emphasis of the piece. You would have to assume this is reflective of the overall response generated from the public; it’d hard to imagine Time would selectively print responses disagreeing with the article.

So perhaps there is hope after all that most reasonable Americans see through the opinionated one-sided reporting so prevalent in our press today.

Personally I’ve always had a fondness for that cap that was popular a few years back that was inscribed with the words “If you criticize farmers don’t talk with your mouth full”.

Note: First published in the November 2009 American Agriculturist magazine.

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