Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is this fight necessary?...

Several readers and friends have sent me links to the now-infamous-in-ag-circles article in the current issue of Time, "Getting Real About the High Cost of Cheap Food" by Bryan Walsh.  The introductory paragraphs should give you the gist.
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.
In addition, I gather some farm organizations are urging members to fire angry letters to Time expressing their outrage.

OK, that's one response.  But from my point of view, it's a mistake - possibly a big one.

In fairness, I suppose my reaction is somewhat disappointingly tame because I have been reading the food movement literature for years now, and this article is really nothing new.  I think many farm readers (or more likely, non-readers) simply had not run across these arguments yet because they are less interested in viewpoints outside agriculture.

So after following Pollan, et. al, and websites like The Atlantic Food Channel, I simply saw it as more of the same.  And I have not seen a huge effect on product movement in the interim.

With that disclaimer, I still think producers would be wise to think before choosing angry confrontation.

First, we need to make sure we understand the climate for public discourse right now. It's about emotion. Period. Take a look at town meetings or climate change debate or (ugh) political talk shows.  Is there any evidence carefully reasoned economic arguments will sway in the slightest people angry about keeping hog lagoons?  At the very least we should consider postponing this sqaubble until we're on the other side of health care reform, recession, and climate change.

And what pray tell are we going to respond to such articles with?  Read the words.  Like much of anti-industrial farm screeds they marshal facts and even more opinion from credible experts (with whom we disagree, but they still get to have a say, right?), much of which is plainly true: we do clip beaks and dock tails, we do keep sows in crates and calves in the dark - we can't really say we don't. 

We also need to count noses.  There are a few thousand of us industrial producers, many more agrarian producers who disagree with our practices and millions of consumers who love pets.  We'd better hope we don't push things to a vote.  Prop 2 should ring a bell.

It could be staunch public responses are the best answer to such legislative nightmares, but most folks I talk to in places like MI and OH where real work is being done prefer quiet negotiation to media wrangling to counter this threat.  Frankly, I think we are vastly overestimating our clout with the populace on this issue, and pushed too far, could sour support for all kinds of unrelated public sympathy.  For example, lots of exposure to industrial production may swicth a few votes on payment limits to aid more sympathetic figures like small farmers.

One really important problem agriculture hasn't faced up to is how different are our sensibilities compared to consumers.  While we moan about how people don't know where their food comes from, it seldom crosses our minds how many years of acclimation it took us to develop our detachment from killing animals for food.  Folks don't know where pork chops come from, and if you think you're going to make them comfortable with the facts in one clever ad or brief explanation you are sorely misled, I think.  Try it on one person just to see the depth of the problem.

But we are badly mistaken in agriculture if we think the cry "It keeps food cheap!" will silence such outcry.  Angry responses will only fire up the opposition even more, IMHO.  We can see that all around us.  The free-floating animosity in the air will likely produce a vastly disproportionate response, and rapid escalation that can only damage our bottom lines.

Most importantly, there is little indication the animal-rights/food conscience movements are much of an economic threat.  Sales of meat, for example are reeling not from a mass shift to veganism but drastically lower incomes and no exports.  Meanwhile we can't put hamburger out fast enough.  In fact, I suspect one reason we are seeing more vitriolic language assailing industrial production is the immense pressure other methods have fallen prey to.  From farmer markets to free-range chicken, hard pressed consumers are downshifting to low-priced products in droves.

Indeed, organic and other process-defined foods have fallen on hard times and are losing market share. Given this dollars and sense reality, what do we hope to gain in the marketplace with calling more attention to our methodology by allowing the media to egg us on into a public battle?  It's all downside from my perspective.

Indeed, the great risk here is a quasi-political mudfight that will encourage more vigilante video of slaughterhouses and manure handling.  If you have not grasped how tenuous the public ability to discriminate between food animals and companion animals, see the viewer comments on petting zoos from recent USFR shows.

Ag has caught on to the power of viral video. I know because the clip of a top EPA official having a beauty-pageant-question moment during her Congressional testimony on land use calculations for ethanol was forwarded to me by multiple sources.  Yet we still don't seem to grasp how silent video of many animal production practices could repulse the vast majority.  Folks, meat production is gross.  We're just de-sensitized.

In short, if we're not getting savaged at the meat counter, why not listen attentively and act with caution, rather than descend into yet another unwinnable name-calling hysteria.

Oddly, it would appear most people are able to exist with a wide disconnect between killing animals and eating steak.  Laying aside dietary issues for another time, I think allowing consumers some room to be ignorant about food production is a good thing.  With the nation on edge from a zillion other economic and social conflicts, much of that ill will could spill over to their grocery carts if we draw too much attention.

Shouting at a handful of detractors will only invite more scrutiny than our customers really want or we can withstand.

Listen to the critics, sort through and find their core angers, recognize the truths scattered within, and monitor their traction. But taking arms against a sea of troubles is not the answer.  Going to war with customers is a violation of rational marketing.


buffalobill said...

Once again you have pertinent thoughts on the subject. I believe that you have it mostly right. My first steer became dinner when I was about 10. I had been present at hog butchering before that. So there Have been many years of acclimation to the slaughter of animals for food. We do as you say dock tails etc. It is just foolish to say or think that does not cause the animal pain. We know it does. Our rationale is that the animal 'forgets' the pain rapidly. We need to accept that as just rationalizing the situation. I agree that arguing with our Customers about such things is counter productive. If our customers go away we cannot sell our product.

Manure handling is another area where farmers have become 'acclimated' to the down side. Manure stinks, period. People who don't come into regular contact with manure can Really smell it. Too many manure lagoons have broken and let manure into streams and the water supply. Manure Is a problem. We are doing for the most part our best to handle it. But we should not stop looking for better, safer ways. Once again arguing about manure is counterproductive, I agree.

Thanks for once again providing food for thought in your blog. Thinking about problems rather than yelling about them is becoming a lost art. Doing the thinking is the only way to come up with solutions. So keep thinking! Bill

Anonymous said...

Is this the grain farmers problem or the livestock producers? If it turns out livestock farms have to change, then some will and some won't. Americans are still going to want to eat meat. We just have to find a more agrarian way to do it. Perhaps we should recycle the manure into fertilizer on the same land where the feed was raised? Revert back to less specialization. I think this could be good for the midwest, where we can grow both the feed and the animals. This North Carolina type thing should have never happened.

Anonymous said...

-let'em eat car parts---completely tired and fed up with livestock-ag constantly being "picked on".......its the countries with big,fat and full bellies that do the complaining----going too go have some bacon explosion-regards-kevin

Anonymous said...

Good comments John!

Anonymous said...

Gotta agree with you almost entirely on this one. The excerpt from Time was like a slap in the face. Thing about a slap to the face is; if you're willing to stop and think instead of just immediately react, it can be the starting point for fixing relationships instead of tearing them down.

Anonymous said...

I beleive to respond is still the best strategy. The response should at all costs avoid being arguementative but use an informative style.You can discuss best practise on animal health, manure management etc.

Negative press is very time consumming and expensive to rebut. Claims become accepted wisdom when no reasoned case in opposition is mounted. It is then extremely difficult to get media coverage from any outlet.

Where the campaigns are subsequently translated into legislative proposals and it is necessary to use the media to support politicians who are proposing more reasonable legislation, the media is no longer accessable and consequently very few politians will support your case.

This has been our experience in Australia. Wayne

JR said...

Well lets see hmmm... It is realativly easy for you cash croppers to stand in the distance and say we must try to understand this perspective, however I don't hear you "listening to the customer" when livestock producers screamend bloody murder about the increaseing cost of producing our product due to ethanol!! Now before you go and write me off as some cowlover just remember I am the customer and it is bad marketing to sugest that I am not right and you need to find the truth in my concerns and look for ways to move to find the answer to the dillema we find ourselves in.
Yep guys I think I will start a campaign to boycott all corn and soybeans in the use of animal agriculture feed stuffs. Let the chickens run free and eat grubs and insects. Let them porkers waller in the mud and cannibalize thier piggies which will obviously reduce rendering costs. Oh, and while we are at it lets put em back in the barn yard with the milk cows to sort through the manure first before we scrape the lots. Fortunatly for us urban areas like Flint MI are being torn down so now we can pasture all our cows near these once great cities away from a manure pack so as not to pollute anything. It will be better for us if we only harvest what "mother Earth gives us".
This mentallity that "this is the reality we must figure out how to profit from it" will cause us all to go broke and hungery.
Well Guys not me. They will have to pry my calves out of thier calf hutchhes after they walk over my dead body. These folks aren't my customers they are the enemies of my way of life I hope they eat well and I will exchange with them thier money for my product but I will not accept thier insult that my practices have caused thier world to be a far worse place to live.
If you think thier complaints come from an agenda that has the betterment of society as its root cause you have been at the Kool aid table to long.
In the words of Arron Tippin "you've got to stand for something or you will fall for anything".
Thier are obviuosly two teams, no spectators. Stand up guys cause if they take your best and largest customer away then what you have left is 5 billion bushels of corn and untold tons of ddg's wasting away cause you stood over thier and said we need to address thier concerns. So keep it up guys join the dialogue to keep beating up on livestock.
Now how do I start a boycott? JR

John Phipps said...


I avoid arguing with opinions in the comments, but the charge I have not repeatedly outlined my opposition to ethanol subsidies and mandates is baseless. My position on allowing our oldest and best customers a fair market for corn is unwavering. I have scars from corn-grower spears to prove it.

Please click on the category "ethanol" on the right and read back over the last 4 years.

JR said...

John I do appreciate your support of animal ag concerning the cost squeeze we are going through. This readjustment has been painful. YOu are right that you have been unwaivering in your support of this and I have even defended you against those attacks. So why not defend me? JR

John Phipps said...


To summarize what I tried to say
1) this is a name-calling attack designed to anger you
2) I don't think we can win it, especially now
3) I see no evidence we need to until food consumption trends show even a hint of animal welfare-driven diet changes

JR said...

John, I was not angered by the article I was angered by the fact the article was givin legitimacy. Legitimacy, given not by it's discussion but by the lack of folks willing to post opposition to it.
I have been around these folks forever. When we lived in Michigan I was continually beretted by those who thought my way of life was demeaning to thiers. Manure was always an issue and it does stink. We did our best to reduce odor and to spread when it didn't interfere with our nieghbors holidays or gatherings in thier homes. I was turned into the State Police because of dust on the road from silage hauling out of the field on Labor day! I have brought these folks to my farm to show how we do things and to dispell myths. All of them were fruitless.
Your last point is the one that is most disturbing If you wait and I am the farm that goes under to welfare driven diet choices your defense at that time does nothing for me. I choose to be proactive because to delay is to die.
If you are wondering if all I do is disagree with you read your post "consider it solid". I have read your material since I was young. One of the first articles of yours I read was of your father drivin the pullin tractor for your uncle at the fair. I appreciate your humor and this discourse your opinions have obviously come from your life experience and education. My opinions do differ at times however you do give me pause and cause me to view my thoughts in a different light. While I think your approach on this issus is wrong I will continue to read your thoughts and I hope you will continue to respond to me. I admire your bravery for putting up your thoughts and then allowing us to consider and respond. JR

Ol James said...

"1) this is a name-calling attack designed to anger you
2) I don't think we can win it, especially now
3) I see no evidence we need to until food consumption trends show even a hint of animal welfare-driven diet changes"
I'll give you #1, Mr John. ..however I gotta agree with JR on points #2&3.
The economy has proven that consumer buying habits have changed. Instead of Steak people are buying hamburger,(Gary Wilhelmi's, hope I spelled it right, analysis of supermarket prices and sales) and instead of some of the overly priced "organic" meats and veggies they are accepting those that may have come from a "company" farm and other countries.
These scare tactics are not much more than playing on the consumers sympathies to set an agenda. Yeah, it riles Farmers up, that's what they want, the Ag sector throwing bullets at them to shoot back. If we play by their rules nobody with common sense would listen. Folks in Ag need to use their game plan, but inject the facts to the consumers and the general public. Buy advertising on TV, radio, print (what little there is left of it), and ESPECIALLY the Internet! Get into the schools, PTA's, and the like.
Yep Mr. John, I believe this is a fight that can be won not only in the future but now. And I really don't think we need to wait until folks decide they want to but something. We need to make known that this is the Safest and Best food in the World. And, anything else is just second rate.
I like a Good discussion, debate, fight...excuse the length.

Yves said...

Hi John, thanks for your post and everyone for their comments.
The only thing I will add, that no one has mentioned is the opportunity that this could be. Consider the article in Time (and numerous similar articles) free market development or creative advertising for producers who wish to supply the market with a premium product, rather than cheap commodities. This is a choice for each producer.
If cost/price of these sustainable products is the real issue, numerous articles like this should identify an unfilled market and motivate producers to find new technologies or practices to reduce the cost of production for products offered to this niche.
Don't argue with consumers, just change your product offering, if the premium and additional costs make sense to your business.

Anonymous said...

The radical beliefs of resterday become mainstream policies of today. Just talk to anyone who was in the horse slaughtering business. They stood by quietly thinking it could never happen to us. Radical biased charges made by those whose goal is to shut down animal agriculture must be answered or the consumer will eventually accept it as fact.
To ignore this type of perception altering critacisim invites true demand distruction.

Vines and Cattle said...

Bravo. Admitting some of our sins is the first step towards finding a strategy in countering some of the hoopla. I will admit, even as a conventional grain and cattle guy, some of their arguments do have merit. Ag has severed the personal tie with the consumer, choosing to deal with the commodity buyers instead. Is it any surprise that we find ourselves powerless to argue back? We have destroyed that personal connection!

If I hear a farmer say "but we're feeding the world" one more time I'm going to scream. That's not an argument, it's an extortion racket. It translates as "keep subsidizing me, or you'll all die!"

Ag needs to be singing the praises of farmers who are making money unconventionally, (Salatin) instead of just coming off as a mouthpiece for the big players in commodity agriculture.

Carl Baumann said...

Doing and saying nothing is a choice of action. After the meat haters have won is too late. No don't respond with anger, respond with facts and reality. Educating the consuming public is an issue all of agriculture has been lax in doing. Respond by pointing out the horrible reporting Time magazine has allowed to be printed in their magazine.

John Phipps said...


Thanks for reading and the thoughtful remarks.

I think I see the need to respond to critics overpowering any reservations about whether response would be effective. This is hardly surprising in an industry under extreme financial duress.

We can't flee, so we have only fighting as a choice. I also think the lack of much hope on the horizon (although dairy seems to be marginally better) compounds producer anger at any criticism, whether it is a substantial threat or not.

I wonder how the grain production industry will lash out should prices drift down to very painful levels.

I only advocate doing less than many of you think right, because I sincerely believe doing more would be worse.