Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Food Insecurity: A Core Threat to Sustainability

Have you been following the events in the Middle East? The so-called “Arab Spring” that has been a boon for forecasting pundits of various flavors and colors? Well, I am not going to make any predictions here but I’d like to write something informative about the woefully underreported, and possibly the strongest motive force behind the protests: The Arab Food Crisis.

Yes, this whole political eruption has very little to do with Presidents Obama or Bush, is not driven by a desire for democratic secular or Islamic government -- it is driven by hunger, by not being able to look their children in the eye because the money they make is not covering food expenses. Social media didn’t cause it either.

Indeed, contrary to most reporting, the man who burned himself alive and touched off the region's storm of protests was not “an unemployed university graduate”, but a poor food vendor.

Iran has shown that a bunch of discontented university students cannot stage a revolution without considerable help, this is a broader-based political crisis. Iran has sufficient oil-revenue to buy off Iran’s poor, at least for the time-being.

There is an old Russian phrase: Well Fed Horses Do Not Rampage. People are more like horses than they’d sometimes like to admit – their politics get mighty similar when stomachs start growling and when hunger keeps them from sleep.

Certainly there are many underlying problems and grievances that exist in the Arab world -- and in the rest of the world for that matter. The desire to change many of these things is indeed noble. I'm not commenting here on the rightness or wrongness of the social and political structures that are under attack: dictators, corruption, high unemployment, abuse of human rights, etc -- only making the point that these forces by themselves have not been enough to move people to the streets until you add in the difficulty of obtaining enough food. And that even if these other problems are addressed, yet there is still not enough food - no reform can last for long.

What I am trying to point out is that the Arab world is only self-sufficent in energy production, and in much of that world, they aren't even self-sufficent in that. Because they follow traditional practices in areas like Agriculture, they aren't self-sufficient in anything. Yet, people want to protect inefficient practices in the name of "sustainability" when being uncompetitive actually leaves people more vulnerable.

What has caused all this? There’s several factors that I’ve tried to condense for you:

The World Bank reports that Arab countries import over half their food.

Forty million Egyptians live on less than US$2 a day and 30% of Syrians make under US$1.60 per day.

The Arab population has surged ahead in recent decades. The population of Egypt, for example, has more than tripled in the last one hundred years, yet the entire region is entering a water crisis and still engages in very inefficient small holding farm practices, making it the world’s largest wheat importer.

An excellent report to give you more depth on this topic is the UN Development Programme's 2009 Arab Human Development Report. Look at p. 12 for the food insecurity section. Just one quotation of note from the report:

"The [Arab] region’s low self sufficiency rate in staple foods is one of its most serious development gaps"

Meanwhile a totally new threat to Arab security has arisen that is far more dangerous than Israel or al Qaida: the rise in relative wealth in Asian countries, which creates more inelastic demand pressure on commodities’ prices, which in turn, when supply is constrained, creates sharp price increases, price increases that Arabs in the populous countries very often simply cannot afford.

The well-informed power brokers in the region are hardly blind to this problem; there are voices in Washington calling for massive food aid to Egypt while Saudi Arabia is mostly taking care of its own, stockpiling grain and buying up sub-Saharan farmland leases.

Both countries know how explosive this could be; life in the Middle East is tragically cheap, hunger and humiliation makes it cheaper, and millions of people with nothing to lose, well, even bullets cannot control them.

So, why this downer of a blog post? Well, it doesn’t matter if you read the New York Times’ optimism or the far Right’s fears of Islamic take-over, the fundamentals have been woefully underreported.

In a society where many of the thinkers on sustainability care more about whether their salad greens are esoteric-sounding than nutritious and who believe that it is perfectly fine to insist that per acreage yields be sacrificed for food grown with “heirloom” seeds, accidental DNA, accidental chemistry, and little economy of scale ---- while millions more people are getting hungry --- well, people are a lot less informed then they think they are.

Lest you think I am not enough a “Live and Let Live” type of person, believe me when I tell you I would be perfectly happy if the folks who think that feeding their kids cookies with locally grown, organic ingredients as opposed to a carrot is a hallmark of good parenthood would just keep their policies in their own households -- but they don’t. In fact, they’ve done grave harm to the world’s poor people already with their good-intentioned ludditism, and they want to do more.

Much more.

In just one sad example of many: Something amazing happened following the Haitian earthquake. 135 tons of various vegetable seeds were sent to Haitian ports.

Marching Haitians carrying signs with anti GMO slogans on them welcomed the seeds. These marchers were stirred up by non-Haiti based international NGOs. Some readers no doubt are nodding their heads in approval, but consider three things:

  1. The seeds weren’t even GMO, they were Hybrid; farmers have been using hybrid seeds for over 100 years.
  2. 2. Hybrid seeds produce “heirloom” seeds as their progeny. You only have to buy more hybrid seeds if you like them. Hybrid seeds are just heirloom seeds that have been crossed. Just like farmer Fred did in 1870.

    3. These NGOs did not send the desperate people of Haiti any “organic” seeds, or any other kind of seeds for that matter.

This is hardly a fluke incident. I could write an entire post detailing similar irresponsible ideology-driven tomfoolery going on in Africa. If I get time, maybe I will.

Sustainability can't just be about personal preferences. To be truly sustainable, it must address the growing issue of food insecurity in the world and consider the consequences of promoting inefficient production systems as superior to technologically and scientifically based ones.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sustainability's Life Blood: Transparent Data

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Data can be a funny thing. With it, we can begin to get an objective picture of a problem or a solution. But how clear that picture is depends on the quality of the data and the full transparency of its assumptions and error range. Without data to show the true progress, complexities and trade-offs surrounding a given choice, people put forward their own beliefs about which practices are superior. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum, people do to! These beliefs have a funny way of growing stronger and becoming part of the identity of those who espouse them; dangerously inviting people to promote and believe their own biases rather than being open to where the facts may lead. Because these beliefs become interwoven with a person's identity, trying to challenge these beliefs with fact is often interpreted as a personal attack. The result is a an atmosphere that dampens or even prevents the objective search for truth in favor of protecting people's feelings.

Enter a group of farmers who are developing data sets on nutrient management, crop protection and yield enhancement practices that are specific to their own farms and fully transparent (in the aggregate). Called the On-Farm Network, this effort is helping farmers to more efficiently use fertilizer (among other inputs) which helps prevent non-point source runoff that contributes to water quality problems and also saves the farmer money since fertilizer is expensive and using it more precisely means less likelihood of over-application. Farmer participants are applying scientific inquiry on their own lands so they are not only developing farm-specific data which will enable them to make better decisions for their triple bottom line (profit, people, planet), they are also presenting a very helpful model for navigating the often emotionally fraught process of assessing sustainability. While this is not their goal, it can be an outcome nonetheless.

I spent yesterday in central Iowa at the 2011 On-Farm Network conference which featured presentations from soil scientists and the network's environmentalist partner who have conducted trials on farmer participants lands looking at a range of practices that together help comprise something called adaptive management. (Check out some of the webinars from the 2010 conference by clicking here.)

The On-Farm Network approach is based on an understanding that research into things like nutrient management and pest control is only as good as the inputs assumed and that because of the high variability involved in soils, farm practices and weather; state-prescribed averages rarely hit the mark on individual farms.

The process usually involves farmers signing up to be part of a trial on a given practice, like applying a certain amount of hog manure at a certain time of the year, say Spring to see if results are better than the general prescribed state average they usually follow. Farmers will conduct this test practice on a 3 strips within one of their fields. At the end of harvest, soil and plant tests are done, aerial images evaluated and yield differences measured to detect change from the farmers usual practice (done on the rest of the field). To get a better understanding of this process, take a look below at a list of steps they go through as part of testing nutrient management for corn:
  1. Evaluate the current practice (example: corn stalk test for existing nitrogen levels)
  2. Evaluate uniformity of application of existing practice
  3. Evaluate rate of current nitrogen or manure application
  4. Evaluate the alternative or test practice
  5. Evaluate the rate of the alternative practice (strip trials in the field)
  6. Evaluate the potential for spatial variation
  7. Evaluate the overall difference between current and alternative practice
The On-Farm Network started as a project of the Iowa Soybean Association to test out different farming practices and their effects on farm profitability and the environment. Key to the effort's success has been the network's partnerships. The network benefits from the participation of numerous soil scientists and nutrient management experts from a multiple universities that conduct the research. Importantly, the network also has a partner from the environmental community -- gaining technical expertise, environmental credibility and funding from its partner Environmental Defense Fund.

This impressive network of farmers has spread from Iowa to now include the states of Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia.

What's really interesting about the On-Farm Network example is that it demonstrates so clearly that the economic bottom line and environmental protection are often directly linked in farming. Since this is a natural resource business, protection of the environment becomes part of protecting the underlying business assets: the land, water, air -- all of which need to be in long-term good condition to support continuous sustainable growth.

Too often, proponents of sustainability want to make the case that profit leads to environmental degradation. While that may be true in some sectors, it is not as true in farming. For example, if a farmer cares only about this year or next year's harvest and doesn't take proper care of the land, he/she will pay dearly for that in lost yield over time as the land is less able to perform. The most successful farmers have long realized that their profitability is directly tied to the quality of the resources they manage and therefore have both emotional (family-owned land) and economic incentives to care for it well.

The public, is often unaware of this dynamic. When farmers are called "corporate" and "industrial" by some environmental activists, the intended implication is that large, efficient farms can't be a good thing precisely because they are big. I used to angrily feel that these aspersions were made by people who knew better but had an agenda to push. With more experience and thought, I've come to understand that people who hold this point of view, usually do so because they have NO experience with farming beyond the local farmers market which they adore. They are merely applying what they think they know about corporate corruption to all businesses of any size without understanding the intense difference that exists when your businesses is the land.

As the On-Farm website notes:
"Being a part of this proactive approach to environmentalism gives growers solid scientific data they can use to demonstrate that they are managing their resources properly and in a way that minimizes negative environmental impact."
Efforts like this are critical for farmers to save money, for improving one of the most challenging water quality challenges the U.S. faces and for setting the right tone on sustainability assessment. The data this process is uncovering is showing just how difficult it is to find the right balance of which fertilizer or manure type to use and when to apply it because of the complexities and multiple weather-related variables involved in how nitrogen breaks down in the environment.

For those who want to apply simplistic prescriptions or certifications of sustainability on complex issues like this, the On-Farm data shows just how detrimental to the environment that approach can be. Only by doing careful, direct research have farmers found better ways to target their nutrient use. These practices are leading to overall reductions in the use of too much nitrogen that ends up running off into waterbodies. Because of the massive variability in conditions (soil, weather) from one farm to the next, true sustainability requires a targeted, site-specific approach that often doesn't translate well into broad sustainability score which must make simple assumptions about complex issues.

The desire for greater sustainability by the public is a good thing, but the attempt to slap a "sustainable" or "unsustainable" label on highly variable systems like growing food can actually undermine the stated goals.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Efficient, Intensive Farms Good for Climate?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

My husband often scoffs when he hears people talk about certain energy-saving home improvements. For example: putting an expensive solar array on their homes. It’s not that he isn’t environmentally minded; ask him and he’ll say something like most of their energy bill is from climate control. If they have big energy bills now, trying to heat with solar will be like trying to heat a bus kiosk with a curling iron. He’ll then go on to bemoan the fact that caulk isn’t sexy enough for some people.

His spirit was vindicated when I found a report by McKinsey and Company that draws a Global Greenhouse Gasses Abatement Cost Curve for various ways the world could reduce its emissions. The graphic shows there are many things society is aware of that will reduce the amount of emissions (like caulking) without impacting quality of life (like turning down the heat in winter, which he also does). It shows that there are many emissions-reducing things out there that more than pay for themselves --- and there are things that are downright expensive. We’re not talking “capital intensive” here; many things with high upfront costs will pay for themselves quite soon, and keep on paying for themselves.

The report makes mention that it is not interested in the debate about climate change or its impacts. It remains officially agnostic about that.

To give you a sense of the sorts of things that are on the extremes of the Cost Curve, the things that remove the most tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere per buck spent are: more efficient lighting, electronics, retrofitting insulation (caulk!) and climate control systems ---- while the things that remove very little per dollar spent are: various power plant carbon capture technological retrofits which don’t come anywhere near paying for themselves, and alternative energy (like solar!). The McKinsey report created the cost curve because the writers feel that by focusing on first implementing the measures that are productive in themselves (by saving money) we can then focus on things that actually cost more than they save, like solar arrays.

So, how does this all apply to agriculture? Well, McKinsey has identified agriculture as one of three major areas where major reductions in emissions can total 38 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year in 2030 relative to annual “business as usual” emissions of 70 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year.

Some of these agricultural changes will be expensive to society; some will actually save society money, or, in other words, make society wealthier.

What are the changes we should be making right now to both reduce our emissions and save money? According to the McKinsey report the biggest bang for our buck would be Better Cropland Nutrient Management followed by better Tillage and Residue Management. Some large-scale farmers are already far ahead of others with these best practices, and they are often rewarded with more profit. Unfortunately, because we currently don't have a way to rate the sustainability of commodities, there's no way to know if the corn, wheat or soy in your processed food is grown in this very responsible way. Unless you know farming pretty well, you may not realize that large-scale farmers are doing many of these types of emission saving practices that also provide water quality and quantity savings, expand wildlife habitat and increase soil fertility over time.

Some of the biggest ag emissions reducing costs to society are reducing the amount of land converted to intensive agriculture* and the related various ways that land can be taken out of agricultural use and turned back into bog, grassland and forest. Needless to say, agriculture will need to squeeze as much food out of an acre as possible to take land out of production, since the trend, especially in places like South America, has been putting new land into production. Here again, the average consumer is often unaware of the link between overall global environmental preservation and intensive, efficient U.S. production on existing farmland.

It’s a really neat report. Just about everything you need to know about its 189 pages is summed up in the cost-curve chart. The recommendations on agriculture start on page 123.You can easily down load the full report by clicking here.

*It should be noted that land that has already been converted to intensive agriculture does not seem to have any continuing adverse effects after the first years, i.e., turning prairie into farmland has some negative effects initially, but keeping the land non-prairie does not.

Bottom line: spread the word that some key practices used by efficient and successful U.S. farmers can be a big part of reducing GHG emissions in some of the most cost effective ways possible. The more that large, efficient farms stay highly productive here, the less new land will be converted into new farmland abroad -- something that creates high GHG emissions. And that's just a byproduct of producing some of the healthiest, most nutritious food on the planet!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shangri-La And A Hungry Planet

An opinion piece in the February 2nd Wall Street Journal recently caught my attention. It called for a re-start of the Green Revolution. Why?

The U.N.’s food price index has hit an all-time high. Food price hikes are widely understood to be a trigger of Egyptian upheavals in a country that imports a large share of its grain. Some blame Ben Bernanke. Some blame the Chinese for gobbling up too much of the world’s resources. Not enough attention is focused on the forces of stagnation loose in our world. Agricultural output has been falling behind population growth for almost two decades, and so has productivity.”

What does the author single out for blame for both the long term and short term effects? Mediterranean (a la Greece and Italy) style shielding of small-scale industry from competition in the form of now unsuccessful efforts to ban the use of gene splicing in alfalfa to protect organic farmers! The problem, I would argue, is bigger than that, but he makes a convincing case that such behavior is a part of the problem – a problem that is getting ever more frightening.

Now, the Green Revolution was the increase in mankind’s food security through the use of new technologies that included hybridized grains, infrastructure improvements, and, most especially, artificial inputs that are derived from fossil fuels. It was epitomized by the IR8 strain of rice that, with those artificial inputs, produced ten times the rice compared to rice grown from traditional efforts. Dubbed the “miracle rice”, IR8 brought India from the brink of famine to a new status as a major rice exporter.

What is termed the Green Revolution is really just a small part of a larger revolution that is still occurring: the Fossil Fuel Revolution. The Fossil Fuel Revolution has done a great deal to promote human rights, minority rights and child and animal welfare since the human and animal energies that formerly were a necessary input to virtually all human productivity have been replaced first by coal and later by oil and natural gas. How do I justify this theory? The fact that an unprecedented and extremely rapid rise in rights coincided with an equally unprecedented and rapid flowering of labor saving technology that enabled the developed world to free children first from cottage industry and later from the mills, mines and farms, putting them in school.

Coal was first used extensively in England. In 1700, 5/6 of all coal mined was in England. By the early 1800s, England passed the first laws limiting child labor and “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” the first such treatises, were published before the century was over. Just as coal saved the trees of Europe, the distillation of kerosene from petroleum in the 1850s* saved the whales . . . and, it turbocharged workers’ rights. Less than ten years later the United States would be fighting its biggest war in history over the legality of slavery, and by 1900 most of the world had abolished it. Coincidences? Perhaps. But follow the trajectory of labor rights, the shortening of the workweek, and the empowerment of women and minorities, and you will find the same clear correlation I have. Simply put, humans were freed from many of the most labor-intensive parts of life by fossil fuels and as a result, had the capacity for the change that eventually occurred. Eventually, even the horse was freed. If you have a better explanation, please let me know.

We tend to focus entirely on the bad elements of fossil fuels these days -- the pollution, even roping in the unsavory business practices of the Rockefellers and the Sheiks, while totally taking for granted all that we have because of fossil fuels. The Time, the Freedom, and the lack of Want. Meanwhile, we talk as if there existed viable full-scale replacements for fossil fuels when there are not. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking to reduce and replace our fossil fuels consumption; what it does mean is that fossil fuels should be given their due instead of thought of as Original Sin.

I'm not trying to say that fossil fuels have no problems. Too often in discussions about complex matters, advocates want to push the subject material into easily defined Black Hat and White Hat actors. Sure, there are trade-offs to using fossil fuels and we should continue to use technology to mitigate, reduce or replace them as we can. But it is technology that will enable the next phase of human development, not wishful thinking.

As often happens with us, two things have occurred because of fossil fuels bounty: 1. Huge population growth resulting from the benefits of the technology and the ability to grow substantially more food. We’ve become victims of our own success. 2. We don’t appreciate what we’ve got; in many ways the developed world’s middle class live much like the wealthy of centuries ago. Certainly a far larger percentage of people live in relative comfort than ever before.

Oh, and a lot of us are getting fat -- another luxury problem people didn't used to have.

But, America, we might have a problem. There are several corners of the intellectual world warning that we cannot rely as much as we have on fossil fuels. The Big Ideas out there are of course that we are changing the climate (for the worse) and that we will run out of fossil fuel.

If either of these ideas is true, we are in big trouble. Simply put, we are nowhere NEAR having the alternatives to our present food system. Talk of switching from annuals to perennials for our caloric base, moving to entirely non fossil fueled sources of nitrogen, and anything else, leaves a huge, scary deficit in the equation that equals the calories seven billion people need to survive, not to mention the three billion more people expected to be around by 2050.

But this I know for sure, meeting these challenges will come out of human ingenuity and the new technology that results -- just as it did with the development of fossil fuels and genetic engineering of seeds.

So, I am willing to meet both the environmental and the resources Malthusians half way; the costs may reach a crisis point. But I am not willing to seriously entertain a back-to-the-land “food democracy” of small-scale farmers the kind that populated the plains before the dust bowl, nor a return to a mythical “golden age of agriculture” where man lived “in harmony with nature” as potential solutions. Small organic farms as a food source for the masses were not only famously unreliable, the tilling necessary tended to make anything larger than a garden prone to significant erosion and environmental impact.

Some thinkers have focused on a very creative way to revolutionize agriculture: crossbreeding the annual crops we farm to survive with unproductive perennial varieties, or breed perennials until they get something as productive as wheat. This would solve a lot of our agricultural environmental problems (to which organic farming contributes), but because they are unwilling to use new genetic modification techniques, even the perennials proponents admit they will need decades before they reach a breakthrough.

Given that amount of time, other solutions may be developed first, or one or another Malthusian crisis may arrive. In the meantime, I’ll take the proven incremental productivity gains of GM crops and advances in fertilizer application and utilization. To denigrate the capacity of these technologies in light of no other readily available alternative is like those who demonize the oil industry -- but drive a car to the protest.

So, we don’t need a “new” Green Revolution, we just need to not abandon the one that is continuing in the present day. The most productivity gains are currently being made with gene splicing and more effective applications of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicides. These right now are the Low Hanging Fruit. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- and too often sustainable agriculture proponents seem to take that approach.

So, who is against this? A lot of folks. They often think they are taking a holistic view of things, but their thinking is clouded by dreams of “food democracy,” and Paradise Refound. It may be true that large-scale agronomists will need to look more closely at how natural ecosystems flourish to lessen environmental impacts, but a return to the pre-dust bowl slogans of “Every Man A Landlord” would herald a disaster if followed through on. Why must the solution be to abandon technology which has made life freer, easier and given us the time to pursue things like literature, art and organics?

It is hard to debate seriously the facts with someone once they have got “religion.” One must wade through all sorts of high-minded platitudes, (“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." says Masanobu Fukuoka) to confront them with the facts that demand some kind of realistic compromising “that sounds nice, how are we going to feed seven billion people with this philosophy?” Yet even then, there is never any guarantee you will get anywhere.

What I have learned from engaging in many discussions on these issues with folks that often disagree with me, is that context is incredibly important. If you can place the current set of circumstances in its proper context, and informed by facts that can be as close to objective as possible, you have a whole new opportunity to find some meeting of the minds.

Technology, whether it be in the form of a new fuel or a new seed, has been and will continue to be critical for meeting sustainability challenges. Turning our back on it out of some false sense of superiority or glorification of the past, would be a terrible mistake, especially in light of news that China, the world's largest wheat producer may be facing a major drought.

Let the progress in renewables continue, while we remember that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

*This liquid is the future wealth of the country, it's the wellbeing and prosperity of its inhabitants, it's a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit. - Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1854)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Big Farm Philanthropy: A Secret that Shouldn't Be Kept!

Last week I was on a panel talking about agriculture, sustainability and the role of the commercial producer at the Tomorrow's Top Producer Seminar in Chicago. One of the points I and others made is that sustainability is a multi-faceted concept and includes the things that farmers do to care for their community and for communities far away as well as what they do to care for the land and the surrounding environment.

At the seminar, I heard about the Farmers Feeding the World campaign, which is a Farm Journal Foundation initiative that teams up with Heifer International to help impoverished families break the cycle of poverty by providing them with livestock, education/training and organizational development assistance. Their approach is summed up in the founder, Dan West's oft-used saying "Not a cup, but a cow," similar to the whole "teach a man to fish . . ." saying. The group provides poor populations with a gift of livestock as a means of creating personal wealth for their family and ultimately, their community as they are able to expand their small farm business.

This effort is indeed a noble one - being supported by many large-scale and small scale farmers who no doubt, will not get a press release passed around explaining the good they are enabling. I know that is not why they are doing it -- and the farm culture tends to generally frown upon putting out too much publicity or "bragging" about these things, but it is important for the public to know that today's large-scale, efficient agricultural operators are not only providing us with a healthy and abundant supply of food -- but they are also in many cases, deeply connected in the process of helping the less fortunate both here and around the world.

Even if you do hear about the occasional big campaign like the one I just described, chances are you won't hear about the amazing individual efforts that farmers have enacted as policy on their farms. I only know about some of these actions because I work with a group of amazing farmers on sustainability issues -- and in the process of cataloging what it is they do that contributes to their overall sustainability, I have learned a great deal.

Take for example, one of the farm operations I work with that has a policy to provide college scholarships for all the children of their employees who have been with them for 5 years or longer. Or the operation that gives generously to the local rural hospital and community college enabling the creation of a heli-pad with life flight service to the surrounding rural areas and the ability for the community college to continue serving as a rural training outpost. Then there are the farmers I know that serve as members of the school board, donate to their county fairs and the local school projects every year, provide scholarships for ag-related careers and have a "buy local when possible" policy in place. These folks are large-scale agricultural producers -- and their success means the community around them succeeds too.

Too often, there seems to be a default assumption by those championing the cause 0f the environment, that small must always be better and big is akin to bad. I challenge my friends who think that way to get to know some of these people and what they are doing for their community. You might just find that the same skills that make these folks successful businesspeople are also being used quietly to help spur rural community investment and wellness.

I'm not trying to say that all large farms are always model community supporters. There are always good and bad actors in all areas of life. But more often than not, large-scale or commercial ag producers are very invested in their communities because they know that this is both smart business as well as the right thing to do. Large scale producers grew up in these small towns and have a lot to do with why many rural areas are still able to exist.

When thinking about what makes agriculture sustainable, please remember the charitable and community focused support that the ag industry has a long history of providing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Is “Grass Fed” Beef Sustainable?


By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Most people stumbling upon this blog know that there has been a move by a group of consumers towards desiring an ideal beef that comes from a cow that has foraged its whole life on a diverse diet up to the day it meets its end.

Why is this desirable? Well, the thinking is manifold. It is assumed that “grass-fed” beef is healthier, the cows were happier and healthier when they were alive, and there is less of an environmental impact when cows are munching on fibrous weeds the day before they are turned into a steak.

I am going to focus on environmental impact here, though anyone who truly cares about the environment must also take a holistic approach. I’ll do that too.

First off, there seems to be a MAJOR misconception amongst the “Small, Local, Organic” crowd about “Corn-fed” cattle. These folks, who can hardly be blamed for their cultural rearing which is totally disconnected from agriculture, believe that beef cattle mostly are born penned behind a trough of corn, and spend their whole lives force-fed grain.

This image is almost completely false.

In reality, “Grass-fed” and “Corn-fed” cattle should really be called “Grass-finished” and “Corn-finished” (or, better yet, Grain-finished, but we’ll get to that later), since, for the majority of every beef cow’s life, it grazes on pasture.

Since the days of pre-history, animals have been fed a rich diet shortly before the slaughter, as anyone who is familiar with the “killing the fatted calf” metaphor knows. It was known by small scale ranchers in ancient times that feeding pasture raised animals a richer diet during the pre-slaughter months yielded more, and tastier, meat.

So it is with modern feed-lots. Cows who have spent most of their lives grazing on pasture are brought to feed lots to increase per-cow meat yield, which is especially important during the winter months, when foraging is “slim pickings.”

So, enough background; does Grass-finished beef beat Grain-finished in either land use or energy use metrics?

No.

In fact, I was a little surprised to learn this myself, but grain-finished beef blows grass finished out of the water by both measures. This was shown in a Washington State University life-cycle analysis that found grass-finished cattle took more than twice as much energy and three times the land to produce, per pound. Also, in terms of “cow lives” grass finished takes 4 lives for every 3 that grain finished does to produce the same amount of meat.

Also, the Program on Food Security and the Environment and Stanford university has calculated in a study published in the Protocols of the National academy of sciences that yield intensification in agriculture generally has "avoided emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon [greenhouse gas] into the atmosphere since 1961."

Knowing a little history, these results shouldn’t be too surprising for most of human history is filled with the reality of pasture land being one of the world’s most valuable, and fought-over resources. This has even been the case recently in places like Africa. It only stands to reason that our ancestors would have long ago set to figuring out how to most efficiently use this very limited (esp. in ancient times) resource.

Also, a good proxy for how much energy something costs is price. Look at how much grass-fed beef costs, and how much the regular corn-finished beef at your local supermarket costs. Got it? Now, try not to dismiss this as unimportant. Many people will say “I’ll pay more to save the environment.” -- well, just make sure you aren’t being ripped off.

There are of course many, many environmental groups who want things both ways. They want to be champions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but when the folks who can best do this are large scale producers, they for some reason don’t advocate for it, choosing to focus on hormones or aesthetic considerations. But it should be clear from a reading of just the two studies above that a major move toward grass-finishing would require clearing a lot more land and energy for grazing, even if world-side beef consumption remains static.

Something worth considering is what all that demand for grass-fed beef will do to sensitive eco-systems like the rainforests of Brazil? Is creating demand for clear cutting forests in order to graze larger numbers of cattle really more desirable than feeding them corn in one of the most efficient animal agricultural systems? Or could it be that many of the folks who passionately buy grass-fed beef have a nostalgic, but completely uninformed view of this industry and believe that feeding cattle grass must be better for the environment as well as for themselves?

Okay, now, how about the product itself? If you don’t really care about the relative environmental sustainability of your beef, but do about nutrition and taste, which should you choose?

While it has been proven by Kansas State University that grass-finished beef has higher amounts of certain beneficial fats and anti-oxidant precursors, like Omega-3 and beta carotene for example, price-sensitive customers should note that even grass-finished beef is still not a very good source for anything other than what is also in the less expensive grain finished variety, namely protein. Nutritional considerations for the price-sensitive quickly become of the “penny wise, pound foolish” variety since vegetables and wild fish are far better sources for these more beneficial substances.

Regardless, there are in fact ways to improve the nutritional profile of grain finished beef. Both alfalfa and flax are more nutrient rich than is grass, and research has shown that feeding cattle a 10% flaxseed blend with grain can not only provide us with a grain finished beef that is higher in omega-3s and CLAs than grass-fed, but improves the weight, health and quality of the cow over conventional feed lot diets.

So, it is possible to get a lot of the nutritional benefits of grass-finished beef with the energy efficiency, and reduced cost, of grain-finishing. Good news for the consumer and the environment!

What about taste? Well, simply put, 80% of consumers prefer the taste of Corn-finished beef

This is likely due to the fact that grass finished beef is leaner. As anyone who has tasted venison can attest, that ultimate free-range (and for most people, least efficient) food source (Which is often, but not always, paradoxically derided by the very same anti large-farm partisans.) does not have sufficient fat in the muscle to have as desirable a taste. Buffalo is like this too, the meat tastes a bit like the less-expensive leaner cuts of grain-fed beef that are used for stewing. When I cook buffalo burgers, I am always sure to add lots of flavor inside the patty, and to use lots of vegetable oil to keep the meat from drying out, otherwise, you get a sort of cardboard effect.

Do a blind taste test for yourselves, and tell me what you find!

Just like the old saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," we need to do a better job as a society of really thinking through issues rather than reacting to some aesthetic or emotional appeal. For those of you who still prefer grass-finished beef, that's fine -- just know the whole story behind what you are buying -- and that there are consequences to the environment and the planet for making that choice. And please, stop demonizing a very efficient system that can provide needed protein in a sustainable way to the world's growing population.

The question now becomes whether people who simply didn't know that grass-fed beef was so inefficient and of the true beneficial qualities of our corn-finished system, will now be willing to alter their opinion? That is perhaps one of the hardest thing for any person to do -- change your mind or admit you might have been wrong when confronted with new information. But if we are to truly find our way toward sustainable global systems, then we must all be willing to search for new answers -- and accept new paths toward sustainability when informed by science.

Here's wishing you a nice corn-finished steak as part of your next sustainable meal!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Danger of Half Truths

One of the great things about trying to educate the public about agricultural sustainability is the pushback I get when I try to explain the basic science that needs to be consulted when making sustainability calculations. This helps me understand where various groups are coming from when they voice opposition to my core belief that efficiency is the fundamental value in feeding a very populous planet nutrient dense food with minimal environmental impact.

There appears to be a meme (narrative) going around that one or another of Monsanto’s Genetically modified seeds produces a crop that “sterilizes the soil, and turns it into dry sand.”

It is pointless to try to find out where the origin of this belief originated; what we really need to know is whether it is true or not.

In my researching yesterday, I tried to put aside the logical argument of “Why would a company sell a product that would ruin its customers, and make the company a lawyer-magnet?” After all, dangerous products have been sold before, like asbestos.

Well, I have not yet been able to “prove a negative” I have not found any authoritative, independent third party source that categorically states “we have found no GMO that is capable of turning a field to dust.”

But what I HAVE stumbled over is some incredibly irresponsible journalism.

Take for example this article that appeared on Grist and the Huffington Post websites.

The article is essentially an outrage piece decrying an ad campaign by Monsanto touting the sustainable aspects of what they do to earn a living. The gist of their criticism is that Monsanto has chosen an image that looks too much like a small- scale farmer when they should show an image of someone who looks like a large-scale farmer. I guess the anger that the “Small, Local, Organic” partisans feel is because Monsanto, Chief Devil in their battle of Good vs. Evil moral play, is stealing their iconography.

Fine so far, right? But then the writer goes on to describe the supposed evils wrought by the large-scale farmers that use Monsanto’s technology, which culminates with “Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.”

Whoa! Paydirt! The author does not state that Monsanto is turning fields to dust, but is merely saying that “Agribiz” (which farms are not also businesses? I’ll have to research this….) may be doing so. They also have a link to back up that statement, apparently.

But when you read the Mother Jones article it links to you, find out that it is an article about the drying of California’s Central Valley -- which Mother Jones blames not on farming of any kind, but rather the diminishing Sierra Nevada snowpack. In fact, the people they profile in the article blame the federal government for not diverting a greater percentage of the water from the snowpack east to the central valley to protect the habitat of a Smelt fish. So, depending on your politics, you could blame carbon admissions, or Washington D.C.’s priorities on the plight of California’s Central valley -- but the only way you can blame the farmers is for choosing to farm there in the first place, since the area is naturally quite dry and was only made productive through aqueducts from other regions.

Call me naïve, but this is frankly bizarre. How could the author DARE impugn farmers with a link to an article that doesn’t even speculate that the farmers are to blame? Unfortunately, one can imagine the science illiterate, who maybe already childishly (or cleverly, depending on your viewpoint) refer to “Mon-Satano,” reading this article, not checking the sources, and -- because it is an article about Monsanto – make the intuitive leap that GMOs are drying up the landscape. So, they now have one more feather to plume their headdress, or so they think.

Nonsense like this is hardly sustainable.

The next article I found was actually helpfully provided by an anti-GMO partisan himself, to show me exactly why it spelled doom for African farmers if they were allowed to use their technology: GMOs were “drying up Indian cotton farms and driving them to suicide.” (!!!) To show me this wasn’t his opinion, he referenced that trusted source for gossip and libel lawsuits, the Daily Mail.

In the referenced article, Monsanto is indeed blamed for cotton crop failures (“The GM Genocide.”) It makes for painful reading, as does any description of farmer suicides.

This somehow didn’t ring true to me; Indian farmer suicides have been endemic for a long time in the more marginal arid regions. Meanwhile cotton production in India has soared since the year 2000 to a level that puts India above the USA in the number two biggest cotton producer spot. Read all about it by clicking here.

So, delving into this issue yields two different narratives: some Indian cotton farmers are doing great using GMO cotton, some are not.

First off, the GMO in question, Bt Cotton, has a gene in it that causes the cotton to produce a narrow spectrum anti-bore worm pesticide that is has long been used by organic growers because it is a natural pesticide, to spray their crops (yes, organic farmers use pesticides!) That is a far cry from being a soil “sterilizer” and in fact is naturally produced by soil organisms worldwide.

Errr… that’s it.

No “I’m thirsty” gene is implanted, no “Sterilize the soil” one either, just one that allows the farmer to forgo spraying pesticide on the crop by producing a natural, readily biodegradable pesticide in the plant’s stalk.

Yet, the number of Indian farmer suicides has soared recently. Why? Well, two things have happened:

1. In 1999 India agreed to freer trade under the world trade organization, opening up Indian cotton farmers to competition from Cotton from the USA (which is almost all Bt cotton), which has driven down the price farmers get for cotton -- and oh yeah, drove down the price consumers had to pay as well.

2. At the same time, an economic boom has pushed the cost of living up in India generally.

So, imagine a farmer who has only 5 acres of marginal farmland where he was barely able to subsist before he had to compete with large-scale Bt cotton producers. He is now losing his shirt growing “heritage” (non-organic – these farmers usually use deadly pesticides) cotton, so he takes a chance trying to modernize his operation (like, buy the technologies his competitors use), which means high-interest loans from shady lenders. Now, if he has a bad season, he not only loses his crop and has a very lean time for the year, he now also loses title to his land because of debt.

Sadly, suicides soar.

It would seem that because GMOs play a part in this drama (by making wetter, larger farms much more productive per acre, mostly) some cynical people are trying to blame the whole thing on GMOs, without a shred (that I can find) of evidence.

Other folks are blaming the Indian government for not providing these farmers access to non-predatory lending and subsidized insurance, or a way out of the farming life for those that do not own viably competitive farms.

For a GREAT description of the dire situation these farmers face, read this UN report on the problem, which gives great background and context focusing on the Indian farmer crisis that is ground zero for what is actually an international small farm crisis.

Anyhow, next time you hear an extraordinary claim, even if it fits an emotional narrative you already possess -- let me suggest that you do what scientists are supposed to do – demand extraordinary evidence.

The moral of this story is that there is a LOT of misinformation out there pushing people who already have a negative or ill-informed view of agriculture and the technology that makes all our lives better -- into an even more negative place. When people with no ag or science background hear that a large corporation is putting out a product that sterilizes the soil -- that is a mighty scary thing.

We simply can NOT afford to let this unbalanced, untrue drivel go unchallenged. The consequence for Monsanto might be lost profits, but the consequences of public distrust of ag technology is starvation and environmental ruin for us all. We all have something at stake and its about time we are more vocal about it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Does Healthy Need to be Expensive?

I read a truly bizarre article today asserting that fresh fruits and vegetables should be made more expensive -- so that people will value them more. Specifically, that Wal-mart’s plan to make fresh fruits and vegetables less expensive in their stores was a sure-fire plan to paradoxically tank demand for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Now, she undoubtedly learned from a business class that there actually is a paradoxical effect where people do not want to pay too little for some things, like heart surgery, spokespeople, branding specialists, tax lawyers -- you know, high stakes services where paying too little can be a fatal mistake.

But in a market where a carrot is, mostly, a carrot, someone is not very likely to “value” the carrot more if it is $5 a pound than if it is $2 a pound. This is the exact reason why you don’t find things like fresh Chilean Sea Bass, Persian Caviar, Saffron or expensive exotic fruits in your local Wal-Mart: High price makes their customers buy less, just like you’d think. They may buy relatively expensive beer there, but they are unlikely to guzzle the stuff, more have it to offer to guests or celebrate a good meal; during the football game, the case of the cheap stuff comes out.

Do Wal-Mart customers typically head straight to the rib eye when they need meat? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to guess that they are a little more price sensitive than that, and that that behavior would be more common at Whole Foods.

Think of it another way, for people who already value a carrot, will they value it more if the price goes up? Will they switch to parsnips? Does someone who needs a screwdriver value it more if it more expensive? Does he buy a hammer instead if the screwdriver is too affordable?

If Perrier or Gerolsteiner raise the price of their water, it may indeed increase units sold of those brands at Whole Foods for a certain highly manipulable segment of the middle class, but the average Wal-Mart customer would likely think those people are stupid. And, consider this; would one brand raising the price of water cause people in general to drink more water? I don’t think so. Water is certainly valuable, but people don’t pipe it into their homes because it is expensive.

Keri Kennedy, manager of the West Virginia’s health department's Office of Healthy Lifestyles was interviewed after Huntington, West Virginia was ranked Least Healthy in the whole USA. Her insight as to why people don’t eat well in West Virginia’s largest city: People don’t think they can afford to eat well; people who are watching prices are not only sensitive to price, but to convenience as well, so they really go for the various “value meals” that are offered at the take-out windows of the chain fast food restaurants because they see the compare the price of fresh broccoli, meat, etc, and compare it to the price and convenience of the value meal and they find the fresh ingredient route lacking, so, the I think the author’s theory is utter nonsense. Getting that yet?

I’m sorry if I am coming across as the Queen of Obvious here. But these people are out there, and they apparently have M.B.A.s.

But perhaps the writer is not as crazy as she seems, we learn at the end of her article that she would like to be the conduit of healthy food to markets, especially in New York City, and the idea of Wal-Mart not only moving into "her" territory but also making their food more affordable and healthy probably deeply depresses her, since Wal-Mart is, shall we say, notorious for giving their customers what they want, and being very good at what they do. Not something against which someone who practices business in a “how can we make products more unaffordable to the middle class?” sort of way would enjoy competing, no doubt.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Small Scale Food & Big Germ Concerns

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I continue to ponder the “sustainability” of locavorism, and the articulate criticisms of the thesis that the Local Foods movement is math illiterate regarding energy use (If you haven’t read “Math Lessons For Locavores” yet, please read it first by clicking here.)

Some proponents of the local food movement will say that even if it is not the most energy efficient means of producing food, it has multiple other benefits that make it more "sustainable" or worthwhile.

Take for example the thoughts of Western Region Director at Food & Water Watch, Elanor Starmer writing on the environmentalist website Grist that Budiansky's (Math Lessons for Locavores author) piece is essentially off-base because the REAL issue is public health (of the microbiological variety), and not energy use.

Specifically she says this:

“… when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don't, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies' hands have salmonella all over them, well -- look out, world [….]

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we're eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that's what we'll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here's my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.”

You can read Starmer's full piece by clicking here.

Now, as someone whose thinking leans conservative/libertarian, I am sympathetic to the idea of “choice,” especially if you can self-finance your options (as the middle class in San Francisco can like very few others.)

But I think she conflates a few issues, and makes some incorrect assumptions. Namely, that “all small farms are clean” and that “big farms can get away with anything.”

My husband asserts that even though he was raised on factory farm food that was admittedly processed into unhealthy meals, he NEVER got food poisoning until he visited France for the first time (which has a famous “small is better” ethic), and he even was greatly embarrassed when a French family brought him to a beautiful four star restaurant in the French country side, with a rainbow of different colored cows and sheep and goats on the foothills making a picture perfect backdrop to the patio meal. He ordered a four-cheese dish that was heartily approved of by his hosts, as the cheeses were all local. When he saw that one of the cheeses was crawling with maggots, he desperately wanted to hide the fact from his hosts, not wanting them to be angry with him, for unintentionally wounding their pride. He swears he has never so much as seen a maggot in another restaurant, anywhere.

Colorful, but mere anecdote, to be sure. My point is: small farms have an esthetic appeal even if rusting antiquated implements and flaking lead-based paint is part of the tableau, but this is NO indication of the level of quality control over what is essentially a cottage industry. Indeed, the latest food safety laws have exempted small producers from the standards demanded of the large producers, (see related WSJ story by clicking here) and this is (besides the lobbying done by various “SmallAg” lobbyists) essentially structural; the big guys can AFFORD to comply in ways the little guy can’t, just like a huge multi-national car company can afford to make cars with airbags, etc, in a way a cottage industry that makes only 100 cars a year could never match.

She also seems to miss the fact that fewer farms are easier to inspect than many small ones. Not only does more acres per farm mean that you can have more in-house health specialists, it also means that you can have less inspectors.

There do exist die-hard locavores that are willing to actually visit some of the farms that they patronize, but I would bet that the vast majority of (mostly urban) locavores are willing to give the small farmers the benefit of the doubt as long as their operations are not found to be lacking in “smallness” – and even the die-hard ones aren’t asking that “Flannel Frank” allow them to take samples of what is in their tanks, and soil.

Before I get into the specifics of the recent food health problems, I’d like people to give me the benefit of the doubt and understand that I am not only a person, but a mother too, and care as much about food safety as just about anyone. In fact, I’d like to see the food safety regulations enforced more, and more universally.

But, and here’s the meat of my rebuttal, even when things go wrong with US large scale farming, they are not nearly so bad as things have been throughout human history, which has been mostly small-scale. People focus on the bad, missing what incredible safety the U. S. farming industry has achieved.

I have chosen to focus on the Salmonella part of the anti-large scale argument, because it is the most prevalent danger.

If the reader doesn’t already know, there are two fundamental things to understand about Salmonella. 1. It is a zoonosis, meaning it is not something that develops on a farm, but rather something that comes from the wilderness, like “beaver fever.” If you were to eat a wild turtle, or duck, you could get salmonella; it has nothing to do with the size of the food producer, which leads us to 2. Microorganisms do not care if they are in Farmer’s Market, a Supermarket, a small farm or a big one, but Salmonella sure do love non-mechanically refrigerated food items at farmer’s markets.

In fact, prevalence tends to be higher in poor countries (that have a lot of small scale agriculture) and lower in ones with high degrees of standardization and scale, such as Sweden:

http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/MEETING/004/AB456E.HTM

Also, think of it this way: Who do you think has a greater incentive to cut corners, a small farmer who is trying to support his family on an operation that makes him $25,000 a year, or a larger farmer making $250,000 a year? The small farmer often has a higher input to yield ratio (he makes less profit per unit) and his net profit is less. Cutting a corner on safety would be more appealing to someone who needs the money more – the inefficient, small-scale operation. Meanwhile, a problem arising from large-scale farming can not only ruin a huge, valuable operation, but also seriously hurt an entire industry. There is comparatively little incentive for large operations to cut corners. That is not to say it doesn’t happen.

That’s why we need inspectors.

The point of this post is not to say that buying local is a bad thing - but rather, to encourage those who feel convinced of small and local's superiority to really think through the issues involved. There are small operations that do a great job of providing a healthy product, no doubt - but it is not BECAUSE they are small or large that leads to this result. To give a blanket pass on food safety to a certain type of small production process merely because it meets a nostalgic emotional need is not sustainable and it is no more healthy in the long run.

Buying local, in-season foods to supplement conventional food purchases can be a great way of adding fresh and local flavor to your diet and getting to know some of the producers in your area. Why can't that be enough? Why turn local and conventional agriculture into either/or choices -- when the most sustainable path is likely a blend. And why expect less from local than we rightfully expect from conventional?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Healthier Food: Who is Responsible?


By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Today, Wal-Mart launched a policy they will employ on their private label foods to cut the amount of salt, sugar and trans fats by various amounts over the next 5 years. Below are a few snippets from today's New York Times story:
January 20, 2011

Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, will announce a five-year plan on Thursday to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables . . .

In addition, Wal-Mart will work to eliminate any extra cost to customers for healthy foods made with whole grains, said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. By lowering prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, Wal-Mart says it will cut into its own profits but hopes to make up for it in sales volume. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” he said . . .

Wal-Mart is hardly the first company to take such steps; ConAgra Foods, for example, has promised to reduce sodium content in its foods by 20 percent by 2015.

But because Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any other company in the country, and because it is such a large purchaser of foods produced by national suppliers, nutrition experts say the changes could have a big impact on the affordability of healthy food and the health of American families and children.

You can read the full article by clicking here.

There are SO many things we could talk about regarding this announcement: the market power of Wal-Mart and their continuing push toward sustainability, the health impacts of eating more processed foods vs fresh food or "homemade" food -- and the sustainability impacts of that trend, or the whole divisive political angle: just who does any company think they are deciding what is healthy for me?

What has been sticking in my mind as I thought about this issue is something I heard Dr. Robert Paarlberg (author of Food Politics - refer to my previous post for background) say at a recent talk. Paarlberg said that he thought it would be wise for the agricultural industry to create some distance in the minds of the public, between producers who grow the raw ingredients that often get combined into our food -- and food companies or the food industry that makes the decisions about how much salt, fat, sugar, etc to put into processed foods. His point was not to demonize the food industry - but to say that there are some real health issues that our country is facing, that increasingly more consumers are becoming aware and concerned about these issues. All too often, growers are lumped in with food processors as all part of the same sector.

While growers and processors are certainly linked, it is worth pointing out that often the healthiest parts of processed foods are grown by agricultural producers -- who took great care to create nutritious products. However, those ingredients are often overwhelmed or over-processed by things like salt, sugar, fat and a whole array of other preservatives and texture-adding substances. What's more, the producers who grew the raw ingredients had no say as to how their product is ultimately processed -- something that often escapes the public's notice. So when we talk about "unhealthy" foods and the marketing of them, this is not an issue that agricultural producers should take the blame for - if there is blame to be taken (I know, that is a controversial issue in and of itself).

Part of what I have seen happening with my urban friends is a growing trust gap that they feel exists between them and the people who make their food. This has spurred many of their decisions to buy organic or "all natural" or "sustainably grown" food. They feel that these labels provide a trusted filter that bring to them the kind of food they can feel good and healthy about eating. Ask yourself why they feel they need a filter? Yes, there is the growing urban-rural divide . . . and yes, some of it connects to differing political identities - but not all of it. Assigning blame for who lost the public's trust (or part of it) on food is not the point. Rather, it is important to find ways to re-connect and re-assure the public about the safety and healthfulness of conventional agriculture -- through completely truthful means. One way of doing this, Paarlberg suggests, is for the growers who do in fact grow healthy products, to stop being so defensive against pro-health food initiatives. It is often this defensiveness -- which shows up as anger against specific foods being described as unhealthy rather than focusing solely on personal responsibility, that reinforces negative perceptions urbanites have about agriculture.

Case in point, look at one of the comments on the NYT story:

"This is fantastic news. I just moved back to the US after 7 years in England. The store brands in British grocery stores have the least added junk. You can get bread, peanut butter, soy milk, and tomato sauce that's not loaded with sugar. You can get fresh food without preservatives, cheese without orange dye, organic jams that are store brand -- and it's all the cheapest stuff and the best tasting. It's a wonder any brand names succeed there at all, but I guess there are suckers for advertising anywhere.

It has been painful to come home to find out that I have to pay twice as much for a third of the ingredients. You have to go to a fancy shop to find peanut butter with just peanuts in it, but in Britain everyone has access to food that's only made out of food. Walmart has the ability to help so many by reducing the junk in their cheapest goods. Cheers to them."

Increasingly, consumers want more of what you (producers) grow and less of the "bad" or filler stuff. I think it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity for agriculture, for consumers like this to view organic as the only way they can get away from preservatives or over-processed foods. Just think how much could be done to increase the understanding of truly sustainable conventional agriculture if consumers looking for healthy choices had healthier conventional as well as organic options to choose from. I know this is already happening with individual products, but something to consider before reacting negatively to what Wal-Mart is doing might be the effect of making conventional processed food -- all of it, healthier.

Another angle of interest to me on this came from an email exchange with one of the producers I talk often with and whom I highly respect. He noted that indeed the quality and combination of ingredients is important -- but that unless consumers make the choice to prioritize these things, they will not magically appear or be sustained in the marketplace. We have the food we have now because it is popular -- it is cheap, tastes good and is convenient -- all things we have had greater and greater desire for over time. If consumers begin to ask for and seek out these products, the food industry will (and is beginning) to respond.

I thought these were excellent points and get to the heart of the issue about just whose responsibility is it to make healthier food choices. Of course, where you come down on this has a lot to do with how you view the world and, I would argue, your political lens. For example, as a conservative, I believe that ultimately, it is each individual's responsibility to educate him/herself and make choices -- and live with the consequences. So, I understand some of the defensiveness or potential anger that the ag sector may feel about efforts such as this. I can hear the accusations of "nanny state" and "what about personal responsibility?" being tossed around. And while I generally agree with those concerns, a key difference here is that this step is being taken by a private company -- likely based on some pretty good consumer research, and it will only succeed if the bet they are making about consumers wanting healthier food, is right.

It is not the government telling Wal-Mart to do this, even though they have talked with the first lady about it. This gets directly to the question about markets that my producer friend raised. Isn't it interesting that the private marketplace is navigating these waters far more successfully and quickly than waiting for some political/legislative agreement. Another added benefit of this issue playing out in the marketplace, is that it preserves consumer choice. As this experiment unfolds, if people are determined to stay hooked on salt, sugar and fat, for example -- we will clearly see that in the purchasing choices/changes they make -- away from Wal-Mart's brand, or towards it. Unlike a legislative edict or government regulation handed down from on high, this initiative will involve interaction with the public -- and will ultimately fail or succeed based on how consumers respond.

The health challenges our country faces right now - specifically the obesity and diabetes epidemics, present us all with an opportunity to re-evaluate our lifestyle, educate ourselves about proper nutrition and make more healthful choices. Wal-Mart's move today provides a new array of choices to aid in this process. It also provides conventional ag with an opportunity to demonstrate that its product's healthful properties are every bit as good as organic when processed with that priority in mind.

Conventional agriculture has nothing to fear from this endeavor since they were never really part of the problem -- and are a huge part of the solution. In fact, if the ag sector sees this as an opportunity to educate consumers, it can also be a positive step forward in closing the trust gap.