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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The demons of factory farms?

by Dale Johnson

I enjoyed listening to an NPR program on local foods. But I was dismayed when a lady called in and said that children’s mental capacities and behaviors dramatically improve when they eat pasture produced meat that does not have the growth hormones and antibiotics from factory farms.
This is the kind of talk that destroys the credibility of the local, organic, sustainable, or small farm movements. All of you know from reading my articles that I want to liberate the layers and that I am strong advocate of backyard farming, gardening, pasturing animals, local food production, farmers markets, and that I am a fan of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Joel Salatin.
Your browser may not support display of this image. I don’t like many of the consequences of industrial agriculture (It put me out of business as a farmer). But to make uninformed and idiotic statements about it just hurts our efforts. So let me defend industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture produces good nutritious food with minimal pollutants. Hormones, antibiotics, and bacteria can only be detected in incredibly minute amounts, if at all. For example, BST milk cannot be distinguished from BST free milk with any scientific measurements we have today. If you get a bottle of milk that says “BST free”, it is false advertising because we don’t know for sure. We don’t have a test to detect it and we don’t park a milk policeman at the front gate of every dairy farm to intercept any UPS shipments from Elanco who produces and sells BST to farmers. A correct statement on a bottle of milk says “Our farmers pledge not to use BST.” And almost all farmers who make the pledge live up to it.
Scientists have established thresholds that pollutants cannot exceed to keep the public safe. Occasionally there is an outbreak of polluted food. But let’s put it in perspective. >300,000,000 people in the U.S. can buy any vegetable, fruit, or animal product that they want all year around to keep their family fed on less than 10% of their income. That is incredible. Decades ago diarrhea and food poisoning were common occurrences and you paid a high percentage of your income to get it. We live longer now than all generations before us. In fact we live long enough now to get many old age diseases that we never had to worry about years ago.
Your browser may not support display of this image. So does our cheap corn based diet from industrial agriculture contribute to obesity? I think there is a connection. But I would rather demonize a person who can’t break away from corn chips and the plasma screen TV long enough to get out and grow a salad on their terrace or in their back yard. I love producing my own chickens and turkeys on my pasture, but I shouldn’t complain (I do a little) when I get a pork tenderloin for $1.76 a pound from Circle Four Farms south of Milford, Utah (Look it up on Google Earth).
Please read Michael’s article on grass fed beef. Nowhere does he say that his children are mentally incapacitated or bouncing off the walls because he fed them a Ranchers Reserve steak from Safeway. Let’s defend alternative food systems, but let’s try to do it with facts like Michael does.


Devon said...

Good post. I think the 'sky is falling' approach to convincing everyone that big farming is bad is not helping.

Mad Bush Farm said...

Excellent post. It's the same as someone saying brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs. Which of course there is no difference. Dairy herds in New Zealand do have their milk tested and there are very strict regulations in place concerning anti-biotic use etc. It won't make any difference to someone's level of intellect. My youngest child has autism. We live on a farm and she has done very well becuase of the input she's had by a lot of dedicated people - not because she has been eating organically raised beef. She loves a McDonald's hamburger and that has come from a large beef farm or from someones surplus dairy service bulls - that the reality. Large scale farming has its place and it is necessary in order to provide for consumer demand . We need that and small scale farming as well in all countries.

Thanks Marisa this post was very much appreciated

The Frugal Fraulein said...

Thanks for your posting to clear things up. We hear so much these days about what to eat and what not to eat that I am considering becoming a breatharian but then the air pollution would get me. My neighbor and I had a conversation about labeling of milk today. I see the initials on milk but was worried about my half and half and the world's most fabulous food...ice cream. If I am being a milk Natzi what do I do about my coffee and evening treat? I will just keep on making small changes and know each change is a vote towards creating better food selections.

mike said...

Very good article. I appreciate your knowledge and expertise.

Jimk said...

I agree (with certain exceptions) that our food supply is safe to eat and certainly that there is little to no chance that anything in our food is causing health or behavior problems in our children. On the other hand, I think it is possible that the nature of an industrial-agriculture based diet could cause health problems in some people. I'm thinking of the rising prevalence of food allergies and things like celiac disease that scientists think may have something to do with our diets being so dependent on just a few grains. I'm also willing to believe that we may eventually find that some of the by products of industrial agriculture such as fertilizer runoff, pesticides leaching into aquifers and the like could cause developmental problems in fetuses that could lead to subtle health or behavior problems later in life.

Dale Johnson said...


You make some good comments. There are many bad side effects of industrial agriculture. For example, there is fairly good evidence that nitrogen fertilizer leaching into the ground water in some areas caused high levels of nitrates in well water which resulted in blue baby syndrome (low levels of blood oxygen.) I met as farm family in Iowa who had children with this problem. When they found the cause they completely changed their farming practices and are on a crusade to get other farmers to change.

I really believe that our government subsidies of grains resulting in our corn based diets has been detrimental. The biggest improvement in the health of Americans could come from changing our ag policy to start subsidizing fruits and vegetable to try to wean us off this corn based diet.

I believe that would be much cheaper than the health care proposals being debated in congress.

courtneyb said...

thank you for this post. I think I was starting to get a little caught up in the hype and was feeling like the meat and dairy from the store wasn't holding any nutritional value (okay a little exaggerated) because it wasn't grass fed and anti biotic and hormone free.

PaulTN said...

Hi Dale,

This is a very interesting attempt at a middle ground in the discussion on the industrialization of food.

However, it seems to me that you make some assumptions which interpret your facts.

I agree that some may make some outlandish claims about healthy food and it may be that some will let their zeal for something they believe temper their talk.

It is also true that many on both sides of the discussion allow their experiences and beliefs to taint their view of the facts.

It seems to me that you make the following assumptions in this piece.

1) You seem to assume the cost of industrial food, is only the price on the shelf.

2) You seem to assume low price and not high quality is the goal in food production.

3) You seem to assume that "a very minute" amount of poison on your veggies, meat, or milk is OK.

4) You seem to assume that it is better for "science" to set thresholds on the amount of poisons I will digest.

5) You seem to assume that everyone is the same and we have the same thresholds.

6) Lastly, You assume that the billions of dollars controlled by the industrial giants in no way influences the science and the reports that are released. You can check out this short video of some Fox News reporters who chronicled one example of this.


I appreciate the post and what I have seen on the blog so far. I hope I'm not coming across too harsh. I don't think big ag, needs help in defending its practices or that there is really some practical middle ground where both systems can be "right".

In the end they both present a different way of life for Americans. Truly, it could be said that there is nothing new under the sun. This was the same debate, at some level, that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton where having in the 1700s. :)

I look forward to your review of raw milk.


Dale Johnson said...


Thank you for calling me on the carpet. I agree with you that I assumed too much. It was just a knee jerk reaction to an outlandish statement.

And it is certainly the same debate energized by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" published during Teddy Roosevelt's Administration.

Please keep reading. I will be more careful knowing that you are. Perhaps we can find some real disagreement.