Omnivore's Delusion and the Joy of Industrial Agriculture


photo: DH Wright

A recent post in The American called "The Omnivore's Delusion" seeks to rebut the "agri-intellectuals" like Michael Pollan et al, whose rarefied opinions do not accord with the experience of real farmers like author Blake Hurst, a self-professed industrial farmer. The essay is well written and makes a number of solid points, chief among them seems to be that if we are to sustain our current population and its trajectory for growth, if we plan to continue to furnish the world's populations with the cheap calories that they have become accustomed to, and if we are going to continue consuming meat in the quantities we do now, we need to continue industrial farming methodologies.

Hurst's folksy voice makes it easy to empathize with this man who will "spend the next six weeks on a combine," and who—if this is not just some well-cloaked ploy by an ag. lobby group—is just trying to feed the world. Empathy breaks down when his arguments are parsed out.

From a rhetorical standpoint, Hurst's arguments are weakened by their dependence on anecdote. Anecdote with statistical/scientific substantiation is compelling analysis. Analysis derived from anecdote is conjecture. Take for example Hurst's defense of confining livestock. One of his case studies (i.e. anecdotes) tells of a pioneering farmer who decided to raise free-range turkeys in 1956. The turkeys, forced to fend for themselves, were eaten by weasels and ultimately perished in the rain because "turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown." These wet turkeys are used as a basis for his advocacy of confined livestock.

He posits that today's overcrowded, waste-strewn coups of industrial agriculture are not only not objectionable to the birds ("the turkeys don't seem to mind," he says of the teeming coups), but are the compassionate choice, arguing: "protected from the weather and predators, today's turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system."


Are we having fun yet?
photo: farm sanctuary

He makes a similar argument for using hog-crates, arguing that raising pigs in a crate saves them from being "crushed and eaten by their mothers."

Besides the obvious absurdity of suggesting that an animal force-fed and stuffed in a cage is somehow content, he ignores that these conditions are highly unhygienic and that the animals are stuffed full of antibiotics to stay alive before being slaughtered. These conditions and the use of antibiotics have been linked to Swine Flu and the increasing prevalence of MSRA's (antibiotic-resistant staff infection).

Besides generalizing about livestock production, he uses his own experience as a proxy for how all farms produce their crops. He talks about how he avoids using herbicides and insecticides whenever he can, how he maximizes the use of livestock manure for fertilizer, and how he uses cover crop for nitrogen production. But, he includes, none of these methods rival the abilities of industrial-grade herbicides, insecticides and commercial fertilizers in maintaining and increasing yields. Moreover, he argues that other farmers are the same.

While he may be right about how industrial farming creates high yields, his assertion that everyone is as judicious he misrepresents the facts (or shows how unaware of how harmful his own practices are). As Greg Plotkin points out in Change.org the oceanic "dead zones" are strong evidence that most modern farmers are neither judicious with their use of pesticides, herbicides and industrial fertilizers, nor are they mindful of the severe environmental consequences.

He also continually implies that cheap calories are good calories—making the non sequitur that our abundance of calories are going into the mouths of the hungry rather than the gullets of Americans who have seen their daily caloric intake go from 2,200 calories a day to 2,700 in the last 25 years; much of this facilitated by food costs that have either leveled or reduced in that same timeframe.

He sidesteps other arguments too, like the environmental impact of livestock production and the viability—if not the imperative for—a vegetable based diet, a process that might be abetted by the an increased cost of meat if it were produced in an ethical, sustainable manner. He sidesteps exploitative labor practices that keep food cheap.

Perhaps it's telling that Hurst's response to the many published volumes critiquing the industrial agricultural complex is a 1,000-word essay. It's not a simple issue. It's not an issue that can be explained away with a story about his neighbor; one that that might actually be served by intellectual scrutiny.

Read More on Industrial Agriculture:
Obama Cites Michael Pollan's Sun-Food Agenda
Michael Pollan on What Sustainability is Really About
A Tale of Two Will Allen's: "Industrial Agriculture One of Most Polluting & Dangerous Industries"
How Industrial Farming Hurts Us, Even if We Don't Eat It

Tags: Agriculture | Antibiotics | Farming | Fertilizer | Food Safety