Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The narrative is powerful

“A life unexamined is not worth living.”
Socrates, Athens, 469-439 B.C.

For the 98-99 percent of Americans who do not actively participate in production agriculture, farming and ranching and the production of the food they eat is a great unknown. These people, living in largely urban and suburban areas and generally within a few hundred miles of the east and west coasts, are nearly all two or more generations removed from production agriculture. Most have never set foot on a farm or ranch, and only a vanishingly small number have relatives engaged in farming or ranching. What they know of production agriculture is what they learn in school, from entertainment, and from the major media.

For most of these folks, there’s a vast gulf between what they think they know about farming and ranching and what they actually do know.

Why is this?

The answer is fairly simple.

Above all else, they have no direct experience. They have no idea how to set the rpm on a cow to get optimal P.T.O. performance. They don’t know which side of the corn kernel goes “down” when planting. They don’t know how many acres there are in a gallon or how many rods make a remuda.

If you happen to be a farmer or rancher, you know that the above paragraph contains a number of non-sequiturs. But if you’re not a farmer or rancher, how would you know? You certainly wouldn’t be able to rely on experience.

The 98-99 percent of non-farming, non-ranching Americans must find a different way of understanding production agriculture. They do this largely through school, the media, and entertainment. Let’s look at school this time.

Farmers and ranchers who went to school when I did – the 60’s and 70’s – know that the only time our agriculture lessons came reasonably close to reality was during vocational agriculture classes in high school. Other than vo-ag classes, we got Charlotte’s Web and Steinbeck, a few meaningless and out-of-context facts and figures, and “farmers grow the food we eat.” Tractors were mentioned, and sometimes combines, but we were seldom if ever told what tractors and combines are used for. Or, to any kind of close approximation, how farmers grow the food we eat.

Judging from the questions I take from non-farm kids, the most basic concepts of farming and ranching are still not being taught. In fact, most non-farm and non-ranch kids leave school these days with the distinct impression that farmers and ranchers are happy to destroy the planet in order to make a quick buck. They know this is so because the farmer planned to ultimately murder Wilbur, and because the only good farmers that ever existed were forced off their land, which caused the dust bowl, and were then compelled to drive rickety cars to California, and ultimately, into a life of misery in the concentration camps.

If you think this is far fetched, perhaps you should peruse a few K-12 text books and ask a few teachers what they know – and in particular, what they feel – about production agriculture.

Is it really necessary for students to be taught about production agriculture? Many argue that it is not, despite the fact that so very, very few produce all the food that the many take for granted.

A few years ago a state college professor told me that his college owned enough land that it should be able to become organically self-sustaining in a single year. The college, he said, would easily be able to feed every administrator, professor, lecturer and student a completely nutritious, meat-free, pesticide-free diet.

And he was right. The college has plenty of land. But perhaps his proposition is a bit more complex than he imagined. This is a good example of the difference between knowing something and thinking you know something.

Who, for instance, would grow the crops?

We’ll, the professor opined, they’d all have to pitch in.

Okay. And who would harvest and store and preserve and prepare the organically hand-grown food?

Well, he repeated, we’d all have to pitch in.

I asked him if he had any idea why so few subsistence farmers attend college classes. He kind of scratched his head at that one. I asked him to write me a short paper explaining how his plan would work and how much time students and professors would have for class and extracurricular college-type activities when they’d finished with their shared farming duties – duties which had to come first if they were to eat.

Believe it or not, he never got back to me. And the last time I checked, the college didn’t appear to be farming.

Farmers and ranchers know that the fantasy narrative peddled by academia, the media, and entertainment industry falls apart when it meets the realities of the physical world.

The narrative is powerful and never ending. When the insects fail to die and the worldwide famines fail to erupt and when the superbugs fail to materialize, the narrative is never wrong. The day of reckoning is simply postponed. Like the iconic image of the deranged man carrying a sign proclaiming that the world will end on Tuesday, the narrative-singers simply scribble over ‘Tuesday’ and pencil in ‘Wednesday’.

The narrative is not only powerful, it infects, to a greater or lesser extent, the entirety of the non-farming, non-ranching population. Even in the small, rural, ag-centric towns of middle-America. One would hope that the vast, silent majority remain at least somewhat skeptical of the libel spread against farming and ranching. But after watching events unfold and after visiting with the people that one meets, one begins to wonder.

Case in point. Some of my posts appear in a weekly agriculture-oriented newspaper. The previous post did, as did this one. If you read my newspaper column last week you would have seen that the accompanying picture, which someone in the office had pulled off the web, was of dairy cattle at a feedbunk in a confinement setting. Leave aside the fact that they were dairy animals illustrating a column about meat animals. Ranchers know that during the 30-month lifespan of a beef animal, 27 months of that life are spent at pasture, eating grass or hay. Why do you suppose an image of a confinement operation was selected?

The narrative is powerful. And most people who buy into the narrative don’t believe they are doing so. They are quite certain that the narrative simply reflects reality. They, along with their neighbors, lining the route of the royal procession, ignore what their eyes clearly see and agree that the King’s outfit is indeed the finest set of clothing ever worn by mortal man.

Mega media fail on antibiotic use in food animals

“Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory is killed by an ugly fact.” – Thomas Henry Huxley, 1825-1895, English Biologist, contemporary and supporter of Charles Darwin

According to Tim Groseclose, UCLA Professor of Political Science and Economics, a majority of Americans think that the major media shoots it right down the middle when it comes to reporting the news.

But they don’t. This fact is known far and wide and supported by so much evidence it would take thousands of volumes of text to begin to scratch the surface. Just a few rhetorical questions to ponder. Are all the insects dead? Is the world so overpopulated by humanity that scores of millions die of malnutrition each year? Is the earth literally unlivable due to terrific global warming? Did you recently contract and die from SARS, heterosexually transmitted AIDS, BSE (mad cow disease) or of cancer directly caused by alar?

Just to refresh your memory, the major media have trumpeted these and countless other pending apocalyptic disasters for years. Yet insects continue to thrive, humanity’s population curve has peaked and is heading down, and the earth has been cooling for more than a decade. SARS and alar poisoning were flashes in the pan. Heterosexually transmitted AIDS is such a rarity that it’s undetectable in the statistical noise. BSE, which was predicted to depopulate Great Britain by the turn of the last century, has not done so.

There was never a shred of factual evidence to support any of those lurid claims. The media were pushing hypotheses, money-making hypotheses generated by activists.

Today another activist inspired hypothesis has claimed the media’s support, ink and air time. According to Consumer Reports magazine’s public policy and advocacy group:

“We are asking supermarkets to step up to the challenge and tell their suppliers to procure only meat and poultry that has been raised without antibiotics,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. “Antibiotics are losing their potency in people, leading to a major national health crisis, and we need to drastically reduce their use in food animals….”

This activist campaign was kicked off with a Consumer Reports March telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. respondents asking – presumably, because the actual survey and survey questions are not available – whether Americans want antibiotic-free meat. According to the executive summary of the report, “key findings” were:

  • Eighty-six percent agreed that customers should be able to buy meat and poultry raised without antibiotics at their local supermarkets.
  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents reported that meat raised without antibiotics was available to them. Eighty-two percent said they would buy it if it were available.
  • More than 60 percent stated that they would be willing to pay at least five cents a pound more for meat raised without antibiotics, while 37 percent would pay a dollar or more extra per pound.
  • Sixty-one to 72 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about the use of antibiotics in animal feed, including the potential creation of “superbugs” due to overuse of antibiotics, unsanitary and crowded conditions for livestock, human consumption of antibiotic residue, and environmental effects due to agricultural runoff containing antibiotics.
Let’s deconstruct this report.

Firstly, respondents were asked about their opinions and not about their factual knowledge. Secondly, a cohort of 1,000 is tiny in a nation of more than 310 million. Thirdly, The pejorative phrase, “crowded and unsanitary,” was not defined. In general, human ideas regarding sanitation and crowding have no bearing on animal health.

A cow and calf in their natural environment. Beef food animals spend only 3 of their 30-month lifespan in feedlots.
Fourthly, Agricultural runoff has caused unintended changes in river/ocean interface habitats. Such changes are factually neither good nor bad, they are simply changes. Given relative populations, antibiotics and antibiotic residues found in these interface zones are far more likely to have originated in human waste rather than food animal waste.

Halloran, the mouthpiece for Consumer’s Union on this issue, sets up a false argument by stating that antibiotics are losing effectiveness in humans and therefore antibiotic use in food animals must be drastically reduced.

There’s no doubt that antibiotic resistant pathogens are a problem for those humans infected by them. There is a great deal of factual evidence suggesting that chronic under-dosing, that is, patients not taking the full course of antibiotic prescribed, is highly correlated with the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens. In other words, under-dosing kills the highly susceptible pathogens but leaves the naturally mutated, less susceptible pathogens weakened but alive. Over the course of the last 70 years, under-dosing has contributed greatly to the creation of so-called superbugs.

In addition, superbugs live almost exclusively in hospitals, where disease is concentrated. Most pathogen-caused hospital mortality is caused by nosocomial, or hospital-derived, infection.

There is no factual evidence that antibiotic use in food animals has ever caused a superbug which crossed over and infected a single human.

In most cases, different antibiotics are used therapeutically in animals and humans. When the same antibiotic is used in humans and animals, extraordinary measures are taken to prevent mis- or under-dosing in animals. In all cases, antibiotics can only be administered therapeutically to food animals when prescribed by a licensed veterinarian. Growth-enhancing bacteriostats such as ionophores are not classed as antibiotics. Neither is the topical bacteriostat iodine.

Of the 1,000 respondents, 370 said they would be willing to pay an additional dollar per pound for meat raised without antibiotics. Would those same people be willing to pay extra if they were aware of antibiotic withdrawal periods in food animals and that USDA inspectors prevent meat with antibiotic residues from being sold? If they knew that antibiotic use in food animals has never produced a crossover superbug?

The food animal market is largely fixed, in that the producer can’t really haggle to raise his price. He has to take what is offered or not sell. Therefore, he can’t make up disease death losses by raising prices. He can only combat disease by proper management of his animals. High disease mortality would drive many producers out of business in short order. Fewer livestock producers would mean a smaller supply of food animals, and a consequent increase in demand – and price. A one dollar increase in retail price wouldn’t begin to cover the price in a low-supply/high-demand situation.

At the bottom line, there is no factual evidence supporting the notion that antibiotic use in food animals puts consumers at any level of risk. There are multifaceted checks and balances in place to mitigate such risk. Once again, the major media is selling, yes selling, a lie.

If you’re a food animal producer, I suggest you do what you can to shed a little light on the truths of meat production as well as on the lies propagated by the major media.