Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Let them eat organic!

I’ve no idea whether the French Revolution is covered anymore in public education. To the extent that it may be, I suspect it’s taught as Zinnian revisionist history. Nevertheless, when I attended school the French Revolution was covered several times; in elementary, junior high, and high school. The French, as well as a number of other contemporary and near-contemporary revolutions, were used as a foil against which to compare and contrast the American Revolution.

At any rate, the topic was thoroughly discussed including the famous but apocryphal utterance of Marie Antoinette, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” In common attribution the phrase is translated “let them eat cake.” A more accurate translation is “[then] they [may] eat brioche.” Brioche, of course, is a bread made with eggs and butter, and not the confectionary cake we Americans usually think of.

The point of talking about the quote is to illustrate the misunderstanding of a an issue by a person disconnected from the issue. The issue in France during the revolution was hunger and the French public were demanding bread to fill their empty bellies. Marie neither lacked for bread nor brioche. She was disconnected from the issue. Her misunderstanding was simple -- if the problem is a lack of bread, then eat brioche instead. Problem solved.

Today in America there is a similar but vastly more widespread misunderstanding. A great many Americans have come to believe, for various reasons, that brioche, in the form of “organic” or “natural” food, is an equal and viable alternative to dowdy old bread, or food produced by modern agricultural techniques. This misunderstanding of the situation is every bit as silly and feather-headed as the French Queen’s apocryphal utterance.

For years now U.S. farmers and ranchers have come under attack by a number of self-proclaimed “experts” who argue that modern production agriculture is destroying the environment, putting the food supply at risk, sickening consumers, making American children obese, putting a wall between humans and nature, and a long list of other wrongs.

Michael Pollan, for instance, a University of California-Berkeley journalism professor, has written books attacking production agriculture (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; In Defense of Food) and appeared in the PBS documentary Food, Inc. Pollan argues that modern agriculture is destructive, and that humans must return to the farming practices of the eighteenth century, consuming only locally grown, organic food, produced by subsistence farming and secured through a barter economy.

A number of other “expert” commentators, with neither background nor education in agriculture, have jumped on the bandwagon, and the major media has widely and uncritically reported on all of it.

“Consumers should apologize for eating meat,” said James E. McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and a fellow at the agrarian studies program at Yale University. McWilliams, a longtime vegetarian and author of the book “Just Food,” claims that livestock consumes 70 percent of the water in the American west, produce 21 percent of all greenhouse gasses, and are treated with three-quarters of all antibiotics produced.

Patrick O. Brown, a Stanford University biochemist and vegan, claims that livestock production is not only contributing to out of control, man-made global warming, but is deforesting the Amazon. Both of these claims are coming under increasing fire as the planet continues a cooling trend and recent studies show expansion of Amazonian rain forest. Brown’s proposed solution? “Eliminate animal farming on planet Earth.”

Based on the claims and theories espoused by these so-called experts, organic and “locavore” movements have become a passionate fad for many Americans. And while there’s nothing wrong with choosing to eat only locally grown, organic food – so long as the supply of these foods can meet demand – mandating these production practices for the entire U.S. ag sector, as many of these experts demand, is a prescription for widespread starvation.

Leaving all other considerations aside, small-plot organic food production simply cannot feed America’s 310 million souls. In 1790, when the U.S. population was 3.9 million and 80 percent of Americans were full-time farmers, ag production often failed to meet the nutritional requirements of the nation. Hunger was a constant threat, and where crops failed, starvation was a grim reality. Today, fewer than one percent of 317 million Americans feed the country. Those 3 million American farmers and ranchers provide consumers with the most abundant, highest quality and most inexpensive food supply the world has ever known.

Fortunately, many of the real-world truths about production agriculture are coming to the fore, and genuine ag researchers are countering with fact the simplistic fiction of the Pollans’ of the world. A case in point is a paper written by dairy science professor Jude Capper. In “Demystifying The Environmental Sustainability Of Food Production,” Capper writes:

“All food production has an environmental impact and livestock production has been singled out as a major contributor to climate change. However, consumer and governmental perceptions of strategies and production systems used to reduce environmental impact are often simplistic and appear to be based on misconceptions that do not consider potential negative trade-offs.”

Capper, an assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, notes that while many commentators claim, and many consumers believe, that eating grass-fed meat or locally grown food are environmentally friendly decisions, they are often far off the mark when drawing such intuitive conclusions.

While there is widespread perception that grass-fed meat is  environmentally friendly than conventionally produced, grain-finished beef, writes Capper, “...the time needed to grow an animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn, which means that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold in grass-fed beef cattle.” In addition, she said, finishing the U.S. population of fed-cattle on pasture would require an extra 60 million acres of land.

On the trend among many consumers who want to purchase food grown locally, Capper said, “Often 'locally grown' food is thought to have a lower environmental impact than food transported over long distances due to carbon emissions from fuel. This simplistic approach fails to consider the productivity of the transportation system, which has tremendous impact on the energy expended per unit of food.”

While the desire to protect the environment by altering personal behavior is admirable, she said, “Those decisions must be based on logic rather than intuition.”

“Consumers might think they are making the responsible, virtuous food choices, when, in truth, they are supporting production practices that consume more natural resources, cause greater pollution and create a larger carbon footprint than more efficient, technology-driven, conventional methods,” she said.

The many millions of Americans presently clamoring for organic over modern food production would do themselves well to introduce a little rigor in their decision making. Ironically, today even the poorest of the poor in America have instant access to the entire world wide web, yet they cannot find a way to actually check the facts of such a critical issue.

What people choose to believe, and the evidence they choose to credit, is, of course, up to the individual. Many individuals, though, tend to believe that they can and should take it upon themselves to demand brioche over bread, based on both a faulty understanding of the issue and on a complete absence of even the most basic attempt to understand the issue. Such thinking (or lack of thinking) actually serves to make Marie Antoinette seem a paragon of reason and intellect.

A complicating factor is today’s entertainment media, which still clings to the clearly false notion that it is providing “news.”