The Agri-Intellectuals and the Omnivore’s Delusion

Playing on the title of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Missouri farmer Blake Hurst pens an extremely well argued and reasoned response to the criticisms the ‘agri-intellectuals’ pile on industrial farmers and their production methods—particularly those rearing livestock.

Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is. This is something the critics of industrial farming never seem to understand.

[…] I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand. […] Farmers can raise food in different ways if that is what the market wants. It is important, though, that [non-experts and critics] know that there are environmental and food safety costs to whatever kind of farming we choose.

Of course, this is not to say that Michael Pollan and his ilk are wrong; just misunderstood or wrong on certain subjects.

For example, Pollan’s excellent 2007 article is a fantastic and learned piece, and is still worth reading today (Ben Casnocha has a great summation of the article). His mantra, too, is as valid as ever (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.).

It’s just worth remembering that there are two sides to every argument. More from The Omnivore’s Delusion:

[Critics expect] me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. [They think] farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families.

But farmers have reasons for their actions, and society should listen to them as we embark upon this reappraisal of our agricultural system. I use chemicals and diesel fuel to accomplish the tasks my grandfather used to do with sweat, and I use a computer instead of a lined notebook and a pencil, but I’m still farming the same land he did 80 years ago, and the fund of knowledge that our family has accumulated about our small part of Missouri is valuable. And everything I know and I have learned tells me this: we have to farm “industrially” to feed the world, and by using those “industrial” tools sensibly, we can accomplish that task and leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us.

via Arts and Letters Daily



6 responses to “The Agri-Intellectuals and the Omnivore’s Delusion”

  1. Linda

    Well, I worked for a time in food policy and regulation (I’m in the US) and what I learned there made me want to become a grow-your-own, off-the-food-grid vegetarian. If only I had acreage and a sunny garden….

    Not everyone, of course, has the luxury of being able to buy direct from someone they know who “processed” the animal/meat himself, but lucky for me, I do, and this is the only meat I buy. Same with most fruit and veg. Again I’m lucky to be able to do this, and I know not everyone can or wants to, but I am with Pollan on the notions that most people eat too much food, too much crap, and too much meat.

    Maybe livestock farming is never nice, but animals standing knee-deep in their own waste, being fed drugs, material from other slaughtered animals, and foods their digestive systems were never meant to process, is especially unpalatable in my view.

  2. Extremely well argued and well reasoned? What are you talking about?

    Hurst’s arguments are essentially “research and/or reporting says X” but “X can’t be true because I do Y on my farm.” It’s almost entirely anecdotal. The whole piece is logically fallacious.

    Now, I have some specific issues with the food movement (like the trade off Hurst points out about labor issues), but the essential arguments of these “anti-industrial farming” books are important to think about: More yield does not necessarily produce more nutritional benefits, patents on DNA sequences are morally unjustifiable and food producers are anti-capitalist (regulation of the industry is toothless, allowing food manufacturers to hide information from consumers; information is essential for consumers to make proper decisions in a free market).

  3. @Linda Of course we do have a tendency to remember the extremes, and I’m sure there were many livestock farms you have seen or heard about in your career that didn’t make you want to go ‘off the food grid’?

    As we say, livestock rearing isn’t going to be nice under (m)any circumstances, but we must remember that not all farmers pump their animals full of hormones, have their livestock living in 12 inches of excrement, and force the animals that are, essentially, their livelihood to eat manufactured food.

    That is unpalatable and morally reprehensible, but isn’t indicative of the industry standard (or the industry as a whole, at least), surely?

  4. @Zac Admittedly Hurst’s response isn’t a perfect argument, but it’s far from being full of logical fallacies.

    I would summarise Hurst’s stance as, “Agri-intellectuals deride industrial farmers publicly for their methods without mentioning/realising that the methods employed are not always as environmentally destructive, morally reprehensible and unhealthy to the consumer as is supposed–and they don’t mention that the alternatives to this industrial farming also have their downfalls”.

    Furthermore, you say that the arguments from these anti-industrial farming books are important to think about. I agree; of course they are important to think about, but we must always question them, too.

    You say, “More yield does not necessarily produce more nutritional benefits”–but does less yield produce food with higher nutrition? Not necessarily, and recent research has shown that organic food isn’t significantly more nutritious than it’s conventional partner.

    “Patents on DNA sequences are morally unjustifiable”. I agree, but really, who are we to decide what is morally justifiable or not?

    “Food producers are anti-capitalist”. Logically fallacious, you say? This is a gross generalisation, as is assuming that all industrial food producers/manufacturers willingly hide information that is damaging to them and dangerous for consumers.

    I agree with your sentiments, but I think the core argument from Hurst is him imploring us to think twice before accepting what the ‘agri-intellectuals’ say. If we do this we will question their motives–as well as Hurst’s motives and arguments–and we’ll eventually come to our own decision, rather than having one forced upon us by the popular media.

  5. Linda

    Lloyd–I appreciate your engagement with the comments on your site.

    I don’t know how familiar you are with US agriculture, but much of it is on an industrial scale. Pollan went into some detail about this in his first (food) book; see also Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. I know not every operation is like this, and I know and support farmers who operate in a much different manner, but policy and the marketplace here allow and to some extent encourage it.

    While I no longer work in a field related to the industry and am not the world’s expert on the issue, observations of this sort comport with my experience. Has the film “Food Inc” made it to the UK yet? If so, you might want to check it out (though don’t eat beforehand).

    I worked for some time for the UK government, and at one point we at the Embassy were coordinating a visit from a relevant Parliamentary committee. One of the party asked a person at USDA about the US clean cattle policy. The USDA had no idea what the parliamentarian was talking about. Many slaughter facilities here are notoriously filthy; rather then clean them up one suggested approach is the irradiation of meat.

    I also had to learn a lot about the regulation of beef here after the first North American case of mad cow disease. As I think I said in earlier comments on a related post, it’s what’s allowed (in terms of what livestock are fed as well as what’s allowed into consumer products such as ground beef) that turns the stomach.

    To each his own–cheap food has been a boon to many. But again, I think Pollan has a point when he observes that there’s a price to be paid for this, and we are paying it.

  6. Linda

    One last thing–you might be interested in how this is playing out on this blog here: