Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Pigs! And other things …

with 4 comments

Via Jacob Grier, a quite-interesting article in AEI’s magazine, The American, about organic farming romanticism. In the article, called “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals,” farmer Blake Hurst is cranky about everyone who’s read a Michael Pollan book telling him how to do his job:

I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is.

There are points in the article I find convincing, and others I don’t. And I don’t know why it should bug me that AEI’s agenda comes through in the article so patently obviously, but it did. All in all, though, I thought the piece brought up a lot of issues and points seldom heard in today’s agro-media-lovefest. For instance, the tradeoffs:

Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.

Or the fact that no matter how humanely farm animals are treated, animal life is still going to be brutal:

We raised the hogs in a shed, or farrowing (birthing) house. On one side were eight crates of the kind that the good citizens of California have outlawed. On the other were the kind of wooden pens that our critics would have us use, where the sow could turn around, lie down, and presumably act in a natural way. Which included lying down on my 4-H project, killing several piglets, and forcing me to clean up the mess when I did my chores before school. The crates protect the piglets from their mothers.

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.

Speaking of pigs (and changing subjects entirely, except that, well, we’re still on pigs)—The Diner Journal has a quick, funny history of pigs in New York City:

Even after the city stopped looking like fields and started looking like buildings and streets, New York was still a farm. Talk about local: the meat that people (especially the poor) ate well into the 19th century didn’t come from the country. It came from livestock the roamed the streets. Pigs were the most common of these animals, and possibly the most iconic. For a lot of people, they came to symbolize city life, not rural life, and they were seen as an image of the chaos and squalor of the poor and crowded areas of the city. Especially at the edges, where the city faded into destitute neighborhoods and shantytowns, you could find whole herds of pigs, roaming the streets and rummaging in alleyways.

In reading a lot lately about farming and food production and city vs. rural life and planning and land use and sustainability and energy and all the rest, I’m continuously struck by how much everything gets completely turned on its head and then back again in the course of a hundred years …


Written by Elizabeth

August 6, 2009 at 1:25 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Oh, yes, of course all of us interested in sustainable agriculture really just want the cute pigs to be happy and the farm to look like a picture postcard. Sigh. Sustainable ag is not about going back to the 1930s technology, it’s about what works. There have been studies showing that traditional forms of agriculture, aided by current scientific knowledge, can yield as much or more as biotech crops. In getting rid of one problem, a biotech crop often just aggravates another one, requiring more technological intervention, energy use, time, etc….

    I don’t know anything about farming, so yeah, I don’t have the right to tell him what’s best for his land. But having no knowledge of other methods of farming, he doesn’t have the right to dismiss them entirely as ineffective.


    August 7, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  2. So having read Blake Hurst’s diatribe against “agri-intellectuals”, I confess to having mixed feelings about his position, since I do practice organic agriculture in the back yard. Clearly there are tradeoffs to the chemicogenetic approach to agriculture. Certainly yields have increased, which means potentially fewer acres need to be subjected to intensive agriculture, and it may be true that erosion may be stemmed in part by the judicious use of herbicides in conjunction to no-till farming. I am also empathetic to the thin margins that this business operates under, and the need to have consistent successful approaches to practical problems…the examples he gives about the hog crates, poultry barns. and cover crops are enlightening and understandable. That said, I sense an underlying unwillingness to consider any of the arguments by the agri-elite reasonable…simply put, he would them to shut up and leave him alone. Unfortunately, we cannot and we must not. And here’s why. Although it may be true that no-till with herbicides equals less erosion than the conventional approach, herbicides (and pesticides and antibiotics) leaching into ground and surface water are ending up in the food chain and bioaccumulating, causing biological effects that we are only just beginning to understand. His contention this is a necessary evil to feed the world, and seems okay with it. Since I worry about the effects of the agichemicals (whose biological effects are tested in only the simplest organisms and in the absence of co-contamination with other chemicals), I contend that this tradeoff is unacceptable.

    Now, the farmer is not the only one who contributes to this problem. All of you who treat your lawns with pesticides and herbicides (think ChemLawn) are equally culpable. However, agribusiness operates at such a large scale that addressing this issue can have significant positive affects. How do you change? Well, I’d be curious to see to what extent Mr. Hurst has used buffer/filter strips along waterways and planted windbreaks. The problem is, these take up valuable acreage that could be tilled for crop production, and reduce efficiency because you need to till around them. I think this is a small price to pay. He suggests that such sacrifices will drive up food prices, as we saw recently. No mention that a primary contributor to the price spike was competition from ethanol producers for the corn crop. Hmmm. And what if we were able to interplant corn with rows of perennial grasses, such as switch grass? Not only would these crops help trap soil moisture and prevent erosion, but could also provide biomass for ethanol production. Mr. Hurst also seems to ignore the difficulty for growers of non-GMO crops to avoid harassment and lawsuits from the Monsanto’s of the world, which prevent non-GMO producers to use seed harvested from their fields if they are inadvertently contaminated with genes from GMO crops. This is “patently” unfair. Bottom line is, Mr. Hurst comes across as someone who is pragmatic and unapologetic as a farmer and businessman. If the solution increases efficiency, reduces cost, and improves profit margin, then the ends justify the means. And therein lies the problem. Mr. Hurst shows no signs that he acknowledges the reasonable complaints about the over-reliance of agribusiness on the chemicogenetic industrial complex, sees no reason to adapt his farming practice if it adversely affects his bottom line, and shows no creativity in finding solutions to these problems (preferring to wait for the next “breakthrough” from Monsanto or others”). Having said that, I recognize that we can’t expect to force farmers to bear the brunt of the costs associated with a changeover to agriculture that is less reliant on chemicals. For example, clearly legislation that protects American farmers from cheap imports built on unsustainable agricultural production is a necessity, and something I would support. But I would like to see more farmers like Mr. Hurst tell what they need to make this conversion, rather than saying “no” to any thoughts of changing the system. The question is, can he do it?


    August 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm

  3. “That said, I sense an underlying unwillingness to consider any of the arguments by the agri-elite reasonable…”

    Yes! I thought so much of what he said was interesting and informative … but it would have been much more effective if there wasn’t this completely snarky agri-intellectual disdain reminiscent of the “latte-liberal” arugula-bashing …


    August 11, 2009 at 9:20 am

  4. I enjoyed the American Enterprise Institute article, but also found it to be a little sanctimonious. And disingenuous. No-tillage I get: anything that keeps our topsoil out of the rivers is a good thing. But caging pigs has nothing to do with saving little piglets, and everything to do with profit, and the commodity value of chicken manure has nothing to do with it polluting our waterways, or the brutality of CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) farming. My grandfather raised pigs and chickens and I’ve seen the financial squeeze that turns operations that started out humane into nightmarish horror shows. The brutality and pollution and genetic manipulation that consumers are shying away from are financially motivated and they’ll only change when there’s a financial motivation to change. And that’s what sustainable movement is about.


    August 11, 2009 at 9:56 am

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