|The first speaker - a small, sustainable farmer who raised poultry on grass - was not there for a fight. She was hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak, but she didn't, in my view, make the point that sustainable agriculture is better than industrial agriculture. She mentioned that raising chickens on grass makes sense because they poop a lot, eat vegetable trimmings (like carrot greens), and they eat the bugs. She rotates her chickens so that their manure is applied in a reasonable, healthy amount to the grass. She noted that government regulations and a lack of processing facilities make it rather difficult and expensive to get the birds into an edible form. These are all points that I wish she would have contrasted with factory chicken farms, but she did not. Then again, with the amount of farm bureau people in the audience, she might have had a lynch mob after her if she had done that.
Next up was Mr. Token Big Bad Monoculture Guy (as he jokingly called himself), a dairy farmer with 2500 cows. I haven't been to his farm but I've been to a 700 cow farm, so I'd bet I'm pretty familiar with how he raises his cows. In addition to what I saw on the 700 cow farm (cows in barns that never graze on pasture, who are fed a high calorie diet and milked three times a day in a milking parlor), he also had an anaerobic digester to produce energy from his cows' manure and algae ponds (fed with manure) to attempt to make fuel from algae. He was building an aquaponic tilapia system much like the one at Growing Power, and he also fed his cows flax to increase the omega-3 content of their milk. He hopes to extract oil from the algae in the future (so far it's not really possible in a cost effective way) to perhaps feed the oil to the cows because it will boost the milk's omega-3 content. Should such a system work out, the cows' manure would feed the algae, which would in turn feed the cows, thus producing high omega-3 milk. He was also a big fan of GMOs and he told us how they allow him to spray no pesticides on his fields (which ignores the fact that the corn generates pesticides itself, so the pesticides are still there). And he noted advances in industrial ag over the last half century - they use less bad pesticides and less antibiotics than they used to.
Then came the student. She told us she came from "God's country" and spoke about how her farm had been in the family for generations, ever since her ancestors came to America through Ellis Island. She is living her dream and she cannot imagine working in any field other than agriculture. There was little substance to what she had to say. She rattled off the Big Ag mantra about America having the safest, most abundant food supply in the world a few times. She also used the biotech industry's favorite statistic: We must double food production by 2050 to feed a global population of 9 billion people. She sang the praises of a factory beef farmer she met on her summer internship. She said that 99% of Wisconsin's farmers are family farmers. That's a favorite statistic of Big Ag, because it totally masks the fact that 90+% of American farms, big and small, are family-owned, and just because a farm is owned by a family, that doesn't make it sustainable, humane, ethical, or socially responsible.
Last, she gave us a variation on the typical "grandfather's farming methods" line (i.e. if a farmer were still farming the way his grandpa did, he wouldn't stay in business very long). She said that if her grandfather were here and she proposed going back to farming the way he did at the beginning of his career, he would say it's a bad idea. And she knows this because she discussed it with her grandmother yesterday. If you saw the Dave Chappelle skit where Chappelle claims that, as a black man, he'd get in trouble for speaking his thoughts, but a pretty white woman could say anything so he had a pretty white woman sing his thoughts for him, it was kind of like that. It was Big Ag's talking points, presented by an adorable smiling young co-ed.
One last thing. She called Michael Pollan "polarizing." Not to mention that the Farm Bureau staged protests last night with farmers wearing green "In Defense of Farming" shirts (a pun on Pollan's bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto). So that was the set up for Michael Pollan to respond to. If I were him, I'm not sure I could have done it. And... he was amazing.
I believe Pollan began by commending the dairy farmer on his innovation and adding that he would love to learn more about the man's farm. Then he very clearly stated that he doesn't think the world should have only one type of farming. He said he described Joel Salatin because while he realized Salatin's methods were at one extreme of the spectrum, he found them to be very thought provoking. He used the phrase "Let a hundred flowers bloom," meaning: the more diversity in farming, the better. Let's try everything and only through that will we see what works best. Of course, I couldn't resist leaning over to my friend to say, "Just watch, now they'll accuse him of being a communist." ("Let a hundred flowers bloom" is a quote by Chairman Mao.)
This calmed down the industrial farmers quite a bit, but the girl gave us another Big Ag talking point as a response. She said that most Americans are unfamiliar with farming and when they only read about two extremes of the Big Evil Factory Farms and the Small Beautiful Sustainable Farms, they will think bad thoughts about farmers. She made the point that there are all kinds of farms in the middle. And this is true - sort of. The farms in the middle are struggling. They have been struggling for a long time. They are being pushed to - as Earl Butz told them to do - "get big or get out." In the past few years, there's been a tremendous rise in the number of small farms. Of course, a small farm isn't necessarily sustainable. In many cases, however, it's impossible for an enormous farm to be sustainable (although I wouldn't rule it out). The small farmers often have farms small enough to allow them to work off the farm for their income, and they appeal to niche markets, like the farmer on the panel who sells $3/lb pasture raised chickens. The farmers in the middle (like the 2500 cow farmer) are often too big to allow for working off the farm jobs (putting pressure on the farmer to make money farming) and too big for labor intensive practices like weeding by hand. They may also be too big to appeal to niche markets. Instead, they are forced to compete with the very largest farms, and they don't have the same economies of scale as those farms. That's why we're hemorrhaging the farms in the middle. So the idea of two extremes is, in a way, a reality. But Pollan didn't make that point - he just let the student's statement stand.
Another great point Pollan made was that critique is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily an attack. He said that he's critiquing the system, not the farmers, and he made the analogy that in our national critique of the health care system, we aren't criticizing the doctors. He said that in fact, much of his critique is directed at the people who buy the food from the farmers and process it before selling it to the consumer. And he gently noted that Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz tried to convince farmers that the interests of agribusiness - sellers of farm inputs and buyers of commodities - are the same as the interests of farmers. Actually, very often the interests of agribusiness is at odds with the interest of farmers. In fact, agribusiness exploits farmers and squeezes them off the land. (This is all true but it did not seem to sit very well with our Big Ag friends on the panel, although they didn't really make a point of strongly disagreeing with Pollan over it.)
By being so respectful and non-confrontational, Pollan did what one of my college professors would have called "lowering the emotional temperature" in the room. The whole crowd was ready for a fight when the student finished speaking, and Pollan didn't give it to them. In fact, I think he won several of them over. And once he did that, we were able to engage in a very productive and thoughtful debate. He talked about how the goals of quality food and cheap food often run at odds with one another, as do the goals of having an efficient system vs. a resilient system. He didn't directly criticize the cheap and crappy food that our food system is so good at producing, but instead pointed out how the percent of household budgets spent on food dropped over the past half-century while the percent of household budgets spent on health care grew. What he didn't say is that it's not just a monetary equation. If you spend your money upfront on good food instead of downstream on health care, you get better quality of life. In response to him, the Big Ag folks noted that because of cheap food, there are many people who get to eat at all. Yes, this is true, Pollan conceded. And it is. But he added that we externalize the costs of that so-called cheap food, because we pay with costs to the environment and with subsidies and those aren't reflected in grocery store prices. When the dairy farmer spoke of feeding the world, Pollan brought up the dumping of American commodities on the developing world and how it puts foreign farmers out of business, thus increasing hunger instead of decreasing it. The student replied that we should teach our technology (biotech, pesticides) to the developing world so they can feed themselves. Pollan returned with asking: Why not teach them Joel Salatin's style of farming? It's low input but requires lots of labor, and that's what developing countries have a lot of. In fact, when we gave India our highly capital-intensive industrial ag techniques (which require less labor), it drove many farmers off the land, creating a problem of urban poor. At the end, the student gave him a gift of a green "In Defense of Farmers" T-shirt (the uniform of yesterday's anti-Pollan protest), and he graciously accepted it. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed because I was really hoping to do a hilarious photo diary of a raucous farmer protest. But it never happened. Pollan won over the crowd.
One last thing to say about this: I'm afraid that the word sustainable has perhaps been co-opted. Monsanto's been talking about how sustainable it is for a while, and during the Q&A portion of the panel, a question came in asking the girl why - if she loved farmers so much - she was promoting industrial techniques and large farms that drive more farmers off the land. She replied with a rambling response about how she loved all sizes of farms, and that all of them are very sustainable. Uh-huh. Sustainable the way the dairy farmer's GMO corn is sustainable? Fantastic. I might switch over my terminology from promoting "sustainable" ag to "agroecology." That's one you can't co-opt, I think. After all, someone can lie and say that industrial techniques are sustainable, but you can't pretend that any of them are based on understanding and utilizing ecology.