Thursday, August 13, 2009

Your daily delusion.

Oh, Blake Hurst. You’re a farmer after my own heart.

With a bloody steak knife.

I know your essay “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against Agri-Intellectuals” ran on July 30, which in Internet time means approximately six months ago. But had the venerable NYT not name-checked you yesterday in its “Idea of the Day,” I might never have had the pleasure of your rationalizations.

I’m not going to address your take on nitrogen, or corn, or Michael Pollan. I tried to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it didn’t grab me. And I’m only going to barely brush organic vs. industrial farming. Your essay is well considered, and I thank you for it. But I’d like to comment on few points.

The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most “industrial” are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer. Corn farms are almost all owned and managed by small family farmers. But corn farmers salivate at the thought of one more biotech breakthrough, use vast amounts of energy to increase production, and raise large quantities of an indistinguishable commodity to sell to huge corporations that turn that corn into thousands of industrial products.
“Industrial products”? You mean livestock. One “indistinguishable commodity” becomes another, because the vast majority of the grain cultivated in this country goes to feed animals that will later be slaughtered. Corn isn’t even part of the natural diet for cows, but it sure does fatten them up quickly. If more of that grain was diverted to feed people directly, instead of being filtered through animals, the energy expenditure would be decreased and fewer people would go hungry.

[C]onsumers benefit from cheap food. If you think they don’t, just remember the headlines after food prices began increasing in 2007 and 2008, including the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announcing that 50 million additional people are now hungry because of increasing food prices. Only “industrial farming” can possibly meet the demands of an increasing population and increased demand for food as a result of growing incomes.
Mr. Hurst. Your food is “cheap” because we’ve already paid for it. My taxes = your government subsidies, thankyouverymuch. When people complain to me that organic food is so much more expensive, I explain that it only appears that way because organic farmers don’t receive the subsidies that enable them to seemingly undercut the competition. If your subsidies suddenly vanished, that price gap wouldn’t be nearly so vast.

Like most young people in my part of the world, I was a 4-H member. Raising cattle and hogs, showing them at the county fair, and then sending to slaughter those animals that we had spent the summer feeding, washing, and training. We would then tour the packing house, where our friend was hung on a rail, with his loin eye measured and his carcass evaluated. We farm kids got an early start on dulling our moral sensibilities. I'm still proud of my win in the Atchison County Carcass competition of 1969, as it is the only trophy I have ever received.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the origins of cognitive dissonance. Does anyone else think it’s a point of pride that Mr. Hurst and his fellow “farm kids got an early start on dulling [their] moral sensibilities”? How far does such dulling extend? Farm kid or not, 4-H or not (and I was, though I was more the sewing-and-baking type), I don’t think I could have ever seen an animal I love slaughtered, then gazed upon its prize-winning carcass with a cool, detached eye.

Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and because being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go. As is being eaten by your mother, which I've seen sows do to newborn pigs as well.
I would think that a dead pig is a drag for the pig as well, coincidentally. And I’ve no doubt that some sows do kill their piglets, for whatever reason. Besides, weren’t you going to take her piglets away regardless? If confining and denying freedom of movement to an animal that you will later kill for your own pleasure (gustatory or financial) isn’t sadistic, I need a new dictionary.

By the way, what’s with your condescending use of “agri-intellectual”? Where I come from, “intellectual” is a good thing. Can a farmer not be intellectual, or an educated person farm? I could go on for hours, but I’d be exhausted and blind from squinting at my monitor. I appreciate your desire to “leave [your] grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm”—I just hope they’ll be more enlightened than you are.

love and tofu,

Photo of Petey the piglet by Debora Durant, courtesy of debiguity's Flickr photostream.

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