Taking the Fight to the Enemy

All I can say is: It’s about time.

Reversing roles, farmers sue Monsanto over GMO seeds

Genetically modified seed giant Monsanto is notorious for suing farmers in defense of its patent claims. But now, a group of dozens of organic farmers and food activists have, with the help of the not-for-profit law center The Public Patent Foundation, sued Monsanto in a case that could forever alter the way genetically modified crops are grown in this country.

[. . .]

GMO crops have another interesting quality — you can “use” a patented gene without even knowing it. When you download and share music and movies on peer-to-peer networks or plagiarize blog posts or books, let’s face it — you know what you’re doing. But if you’re a farmer, GMO seeds can literally blow in to your fields on the breeze or just the pollen from GMO crops can blow in (or buzz in via bees) and contaminate your organic or “conventional” fields. And if that happens, Monsanto or Syngenta or Bayer CropLife maintain the right to sue you as if you had illegally bought their seed and knowingly planted it.

In an appropriately Orwellian twist, the companies even call such accidental contamination by their products “patent infringement.” And, in the face of a government more than willing to allow companies to “defend” their “intellectual property” in this way, organic farmers and others have now stepped up and said, in short, “Hell no!”

[. . .]

If the suit is successful, not only will it limit Monsanto’s ability to sue farmers, the company will have far greater responsibility for how and where its biotech seeds are planted. The regulatory free ride will be over. While that won’t eliminate GMO crops, it will at least give organic farmers a hope of avoiding contamination.

You can read the full story here.

Food, Inc.

Last night, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I finally made the time to sit down and watch Food, Inc. It’s an outstanding documentary film about modern industrial agriculture, where it came from, the strategies it uses to sustain itself, and what the rest of us can do to supply alternatives. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend you do so. Put it in your Netflix queue, rent it at your local video store, or buy it from Amazon. Just watch it.

The film is at its best in discussing corn, and how elements of corn (and/or soybeans) have found their way into nearly every corner of the supermarket. I would’ve liked more detail about the ways in which federal agriculture policy subsidizes corn production, but the bottom line is that corn comes to the market below its real cost. Chemical and food companies have found countless ways to break this artificially cheap commodity apart into component pieces and reassemble them into the dizzying array of ingredients you see listed on package labels — and these “processed to death,” calorie-laden products end up cheaper than more wholesome alternatives. Ever wondered why a package of Twinkies is less expensive than a bunch of carrots? Even though the former is among the most highly engineered and chemical-intensive products in the supermarket and the latter is just several roots yanked out of the ground and rinsed off?

The sections about confinement agriculture, feedlots, and factory meat processing are eye-opening. The narrative was especially powerful in drawing a line between the inhumane ways in which animals are treated to the dehumanizing ways in which agricultural workers are treated. Everything — animal and human— is simply another element of industrial production.

One of the film’s bigger “lightbulb moments” for me was the degree to which the fast food industry has shaped the way food is produced for all markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, and the rest are enormous customers who want their products to taste exactly the same every time. They thus have enormous power to dictate the standardization of beef, pork, chicken, and potato production. And because those products need to be cheap enough for the Dollar Menu, growers need all kinds of “efficiencies” (i.e. feedlots and other animal concentration camps) to reduce their own costs.
The sections showing Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are by far the best in the film. Salatin’s books (in particular You Can Farm and Pastured Poultry Profits) greatly inspired us as we were starting out, and it was even more inspiring to see his farm in living color. Salatin has put together a real, workable model of how wholesome food can be produced profitably. It’s no wonder that people drive a hundred miles to fill their freezers with Salatin’s meat. Although we are not attempting to run a pastured poultry enterprise, his production techniques have provided our family with outstanding chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
I could’ve done without the long section with a grieving mother who is now a “food safety activist” seeking to enact legislation named after her son, who died from a e coli infected meat. Although I certainly empathize with her grief, and cannot imagine the pain she has had to endure, I really don’t think additional regulations and inspections of mammoth industrial food facilities are the answer; as the film itself shows later, the very agencies charged with creating and enforcing regulations are frequently headed and staffed by former executives and lobbyists from the industrial food companies themselves. In political science, we call this revolving door phenomenon “regulatory capture.” In the case of industrial agriculture, it results because the only people with enough experience and expertise to understand the industry are those with extensive ties to the industry itself.
The film’s biggest shortcoming, in my mind, is that it doesn’t do enough to connect the dots between “food safety legislation” and regulatory capture. My sense is that the former is useless — or even counterproductive — unless something is first done about the latter. And given the complexity of the industry, I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The result is a regulatory environment designed by and for the protection of agricultural conglomerates, but too byzantine and expensive for small producers to understand or abide by. The entirely foreseen and intended outcome is even less competition from farmers like Joel Salatin. Want to be able to sell your meat to local restaurants, which would provide a very nice and stable customer base for any farmer? You’ll need to have your animals butchered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Good luck finding one of those anywhere near your farm. And, by the time you transport your animals there and go back to pick up the meat, good luck turning a profit. And don’t even think about starting your own small dairy or cheesemaking operation until you’re ready to spend a fortune building something that abides by state regulations. Then, have fun with the inspectors showing up to pick through your property whenever they feel like it. I realize that some of these measures are essential for large producers, but there ought to be more exemptions for small entrepreneurs.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a very important documentary. I apologize that it took me over two years to see and review it here. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend that you do so.

Breed a Better Chicken?

Many of us rely on the Cornish x Rock “monster birds” as a primary meat chickens. As dull and stupid of a breed as they are, they get amazingly large in a remarkably short period of time. Nearly every hatchery carries a similar version.

We’ve never tried breeding our own meat birds, or experimented with “heritage” chicken breeds for meat. We have on occasion ordered a straight run (mixed male-female) chicks from an egg layer breed like Buff Orpington or Barred Rock, and butchered the cockerels for meat. But they were disappointingly small, and took a long time to get even that big. And, in the meantime, we had lots of juvenile crowing and cockfights to deal with.

Several years back, a friend recommended a new hatchery; the breeder was experimenting with a “sustainable” meat chicken that got almost as big as the “monster” birds almost as fast, but that was a better forager and could actually breed (and breed true). [The Cornish x Rock birds are hybrids, and at maturity are so enormous…well, let’s just say that natural breeding would be an interesting challenge. Just like with broad breasted turkeys.] We ordered a batch of chicks from that hatchery, and were pleased with everything about them. Much more interesting than the typical “monster” birds. In fact, we were going to order all our future meat chicks from that guy. But then…he sent word to all his customers that he was shutting down his hatchery and moving to China. Someone over there had offered an opportunity to set up a breeding program — and he also wanted to do Christian missionary work there. We never heard from him again, and never heard of anyone else attempting to carry on what he’d started. (If this story rings a bell with anyone, or if any of my readers know what became of that breeder, particularly if he’s gone back into business, please post a comment with the info.)

Anyway, I post this because a reader dropped me a note. He and his family have begun small-scale farming in our area, and our families have enjoyed getting together. He’s raised some Cornish Cross birds, but is interested in finding or developing a meat chicken that’s more interesting than the typical hatchery offering:

I was wondering if you’ve every tried any of the heritage breeds for meat. Based on my reading, I think the Delawares are good, but may take a few extra weeks to get to full size. I’ve also seen discussions of the “Freedom Rangers“, but their breeding program seems a bit involved. Any ideas or suggestions?

Readers: does anyone know of a hatchery that is attempting to develop such a bird? Or have any of you experimented with breeding your own hybrid meat birds, based on large heritage chicken breeds such as Delaware, Cornish, etc? Or are you aware of blogs/research postings from people who have done such experiments? He and I would both be very interested in hearing about it.

Marvels of Eggs

One of our kids’ favorite television programs is the History Channel’s series, Modern Marvels. We’ve seen nearly every episode, and each one provides a remarkable amount of educational content — while remaining entertaining and engaging.

Last night, a brand new episode aired, and it was about…eggs. As many Modern Marvels do, they began by showing the modern, industrialized production models — basically, taking the viewer through a massive facility in Iowa and explaining the way in which 98% of eggs find their way to market. They then move on to alternative production models, showing the differences between “cage free” and “pastured”; the segment about Eatwell Farm in California, raising hens on pasture is beautiful, and an inspiration for all of us who are trying to keep livestock in a holistic manner (rather than by declaring war on nature). Later in the program, they explore different ways in which eggs are packaged, shipped, and consumed by end users.

They did their best to paint the industrial egg plant in as good a light as possible, but what struck me was the number of times the narrator had to explain that a given practice was “in accord with [SOME OFFICIAL-SOUNDING GROUP OR ORGANIZATION] guidelines.” I think that’s because, really, the concentration camp production model strikes most human beings as an affront to decency and the good stewardship with which animals ought to be treated. And I couldn’t help laughing at the Iowa State University researcher who looked into the camera and solemnly declared that there are no nutritional differences between factory eggs and free range pastured eggs. It may indeed be true when subjected to a scientific analysis, the different kinds of eggs have identical levels of various enzymes and vitamins. But aren’t “health” and “nutrition” about more than that? Does anyone really believe that a hen kept in close confinement with six other hens, allowed roughly 67 square inches of space, who never sees the light of day, and is fed a diet laced with low-level antibiotics to keep her from getting sick…can really produce from her body a fruit that is as healthy as what comes from the body of an active hen who spends her days ranging freely on pasture? (I discussed this issue, including my conversation with a USDA meat inspector who has seen what the hens look like when they’re done laying and heading to the processing plant, some time back here.)

Anyway, I highly recommend watching this episode; chickens are so integral to most small farms, it’s good to get a look at the variety of ways in which eggs are produced and used. Unfortunately, the History Channel isn’t scheduled to run it again any time soon; if I do see it pop up on the schedule, I’ll post an alert on the blog. In the meantime, I understand that Modern Marvels are available for purchase and download through the iTunes store. This is something I have zero experience doing, and can’t even figure out how to post a link to the relevant page over there, but if you’re an iTunes user you may want to give this a try.

Finally, speaking of eggs, look what I found in the barn this morning:

Yes, one goose egg, one duck egg, and one chicken egg (we’ll get many more chicken eggs this evening). This is the first duck egg we’ve gotten in several months, so hopefully our Cayugas are kicking in and getting ready for some serious production. I thought you’d enjoy seeing the difference in size, and what they look like straight from the barn.

Broody Henny Penny

I have an odd dilemma: one of our pullet hens has gone broody. She wants to do nothing put sit on a nest, and has picked a spot in a 40 gallon tub with hay in it. Originally, there was an egg in that spot…and she really wanted to hatch it. I took that egg away, but she’s still incredibly broody and keeps returning to that spot no matter how I try to separate her from it.

We’ve lost her as an egg layer for several weeks no matter what (once they go broody, hens stop laying — much like mammals stop ovulating when they’re pregnant). I’d normally be inclined to give her a dozen eggs or so and let her “have at” brooding them in a nice isolated nest that no other hens can get into and lay more eggs. We’re big believers in letting mother hens do their thing, and hatching out a brood of chicks they can raise on their own. But here is the problem: 21 days from now (when those eggs would begin hatching), it will be mid-November. In Michigan. Unless she’s the mother of all Buff Orpingtons, those chicks would need supplemental heat for quite some time. The dead of winter is a lousy time to be letting a hen walk around with a clutch of chicks.

FWIW, we have eggs coming out our eyeballs and I can easily spare a dozen for this experiment. But I’m not into animal cruelty, and would hate to see a dozen chicks freeze to death.

Any thoughts from my dear readers? I need to make a decision shortly.

The Puzzle of Dr. Norman Borlaug

Ever wondered why food today is so incredibly cheap and widely available? Why we no longer see so much footage of starvation and famine in third world countries? There are many reasons, of course, but much of it can be summed up in two words: Norman Borlaug. Dr. Borlaug passed away this weekend at the age of 95, and is generally recognized as the architect of the “Green Revolution,” the explosion of crop yields and farming productivity that occurred after World War II.

Dr. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary includes a fascinating description of just how profoundly his work transformed agricultural practices and the resulting outputs.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half. By luck, the strategy also produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and thus capable of growing in many locales, a trait that would later prove of vital significance.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.

This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

Particularly in sustainable agriculture circles, many point out that Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution, like every revolution, included its share of unintended consequences and created problems of its own. Chief among these: the industrialization and corporate domination of agriculture, the depopulation of the countryside, and squeezing out of small family farms. Modern farming is no longer conducted on a “human” scale, and the overwhelming majority of people in developed countries have lost all connection to where their food comes from.

I understand these sentiments well, and sympathize (at least in spirit) with much of the critique of modern industrial agriculture. However, I am under no illusions that it is possible — or even desirable — to put the genie of modern agriculture back into its bottle. Fertilizer is a prime example; the large confinement livestock operations have never been better at capturing animal waste, but even all that manure falls far short of what is needed to grow crops on the scale needed to feed the world’s population. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are a practical necessity. As Blake Hurst, himself a commercial farmer, points out in his excellent article, The Omnivore’s Delusion:

Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with “natural” fertilizer. … And cows do not produce nitrogen from the air, but only from the forages they eat, so to produce more manure we will have to plant more forages.

Hurst goes on to discuss the planting of cover crops (aka “green manure”) to supply nitrogen naturally, but demonstrates that this is both impractical and would remove a great deal of cropland from production. I love the Amish, and the way they farm, but we can’t pretend that Amish farming practices can feed the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I highly recommend the small-scale agriculture that our family is engaging in, and I hope that more families follow us in adopting this lifestyle. But it’s difficult to imagine “yeoman farmers” like ourselves ever being able to feed the world with what we’re doing. Heck, we can’t even (entirely) feed our own family this way…and we’ve met very few families who even come close.

We do produce all of our own eggs, and almost all of our meat, and what we can’t raise here (beef) we buy from a neighbor who does. But, even there, I need to be honest. Our egg layer and broiler chicks all come from a commercial hatchery. So do our ducklings, and our goslings, and our turkey poults. All the feed they consume was grown by “industrial” farmers and mixed up for us by the local grain elevator (with industrial-strength equipment). Our sheep are exclusively grass-fed, and our goats are largely grass-fed, but the does could not produce enough milk for us without supplemental grain from the elevator. Our egg chickens are free to forage, but their egg production would suffer badly without supplemental grain. In short, without the extraordinary crop yields and productivity of modern agriculture, we would not have the relatively inexpensive feed grains that ultimately make our family’s micro-farm possible.

Perhaps the most important by-product of Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution is the shattering of Malthusian theories. Thomas Malthus argued that because population increases geometrically, but agricultural production only increases arithmetically, human populations would eventually outstrip the ability of farmers to feed them. Malthus and his modern disciples (such as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich) therefore argued that stringent population-control measures were the only way to solve this dilemma.

But Malthus failed to anticipate the extraordinary manner in which technology and innovation could literally change the rules about agricultural output. As the late Dr. Julian Simon pointed out in numerous books and other research writings, human beings are not mere consumers of resources. Rather, we are truly “the ultimate resource.” Humans, because of our brains and intellectual ability, are equipped to solve problems and produce far more than we consume. Particularly when markets are allowed to function freely and offer incentives for meeting the needs of other people, and governments protect property rights, human beings have proven themselves capable of coming up with extraordinary breakthroughs to solve the problems of food production. As others have put it, every child is born with a mouth to feed — but two hands to help work. And, as Dr. Simon would add, a brain to help innovate.

And that leaves us with a puzzling final observation. Despite his personal experience in revolutionizing the way food is produced, and having witnessed first-hand the ability of human intellect to find new ways of feeding a growing world, Norman Borlaug was and remained an advocate for the population-control movement. His references to “the population monster,” and other similar formulations, even hint at an underlying misanthropy in his beliefs — as if the problem is too many people in the world, rather than not enough freedom and market incentives for innovators to find ways to supply the needs of those people. I greatly admire what Dr. Borlaug was able to achieve in his work, but am left wondering why he could not recognize the profoundly anti-Malthusian implications of his achievements.

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for the conversation that Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon might be having right now on the other side…

Food, Inc.

There is a new documentary out today called Food, Inc. I haven’t seen it, but from the trailer it looks like an excellent indictment of Big Food.

In a textbook example of irony, an advertisement for McDonald’s Big Mac appeared on the YouTube page while I was watching the trailer. I clicked through on the advertisement, which will hopefully cost McDonald’s some money.

Has anyone seen the full movie, and can you give us a report? According to the film’s website, there are no theaters within 40 miles of me that are showing it. If I do manage to see it, I will post a review to the blog.

H/T: Patti L.