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Food bullying: Part 1

The following is the first of three excerpts from Michele Payn's book that details the impact of food folklore.

Stories seem to turn from reality to folklore the more removed people are from a place, product, or practice. The same is true in food. We live in a time when people are so hungry for the story behind their food that they often fall for folklore. Perhaps it’s because so many feel more removed from how food is raised. Some studies show that 75% of Americans haven’t visited a farm in the last five years. It’s hard to understand or trust what you don’t know, and without trust comes fear, which bullies prey on to change perceptions about food and farming.

An Absence of Truth in Food

This disconnect creates a need for quick-fix stories to make people feel good about food. My least favorite food folklore is known as absence-claim labeling, which infers superiority. Examples include hormone-free, gluten-free, HFCS-free, antibiotic-free, non-GMO, and preservative-free. Each of these claims is definitely not free from BS. Yet, 54% of consumers are looking for statements about the absence of certain ingredients.

The same is true about farm size. We love to cheer on the little guy – from David vs. Goliath to Jack (who climbed the beanstalk) vs. the giant. The small, unknown school knocks out the well-known basketball powerhouse from the big NCAA tournament dance. A team from a tiny tropical country makes its first appearance in the Winter Olympics. After all, the little guy has an intrinsic disadvantage to overcome, right?

Not always, particularly when it comes to folklore around how food is grown. This is especially true when it comes to the debate related to farm size. A frequent, prevailing myth is that small farms are better than larger ones. 

Just like Jack traded the family’s only cow for a handful of magic beans in Jack and the Beanstalk, farmers have had to adapt. Sometimes they switch to a specialization like omega-rich soybeans, white corn for tortillas, or hops for beer. Other farmers choose to increase their farm size so they have enough income to support their family and bring additional family members into the business. Yet, others look to a niche market, such as community supported agriculture (CSA). The outcome of these adaptations has been impressive. Today’s farmers and ranchers produce 262% more food with 2% fewer inputs compared with 1950, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Keep in mind that most farmers are price takers, not price makers. In nearly every segment, they are told what their price will be – regardless of weather, cost of input products, and regulatory requirements. Farmers need to make enough income to support their family or it is not a sustainable business. In 2017, the USDA counted 12,000 fewer farms compared with the previous year and a million fewer acres of farmland. It estimated the total number of U.S. farms at 2.05 million and the total number of farm acres at 910 million. The average farm size is 2 acres bigger than a year prior, at 444 acres.

Is one size of farm right and the other wrong? Not necessarily, but food bullies frequently will spin folklore around larger giant” farmers with labels such as “industrial agriculture” and “factory farming.” 

It seems the inherent viewpoint is that small is better and big is bad, which is folklore. There is no single right way to grow food.

Are Animals Abused on Large Farms?

My family lives on a small farm. We personally care for our dairy animals, and each cow has a name and is, frankly, spoiled rotten. We love them, but we also know their purpose is to provide humans with milk and meat. We consider it an honor and privilege to care for them so that they can provide us with food. That perspective is an important difference between farm animal owners and pet owners. In other words, my cow is not your dog.

Another David vs. Goliath fairy tale is that large farms abuse animals. After I’ve walked ranches covering tens of thousands of acres, been in pens that held thousands of animals, and watched hundreds of large animal farmers go about their work, this need to demonize larger farms and ranches mystifies me. The fact is, there is no one right way to farm – and, yes, a few bad actors can be found on both the smallest and largest operations.

Is ‘Big’ Bad and ‘Small’ Bucolic?

How can small, quaint farms be the heroes, while large, modern farms are the villains? Consider the long-term sustainability of a family business. As Wisconsin corn and soybean farmer Kevin Hoyer says, “Sustainability is multipronged. It’s about improving upon what you have by positively influencing environmental, economic, and society factors. Overall sustainability can be found within all sizes of farms.”

Modern farms that focus on high yield, such as feedlots, can use land more efficiently, and the notion that small farm operations are superior to large ones is also disproved if you look at the farms growing your fruits and vegetables. For them, the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) increased the cost of food safety on the farm level due to requirements in paperwork, equipment, and labor. These costs are often not reimbursed to farmers. When it comes to bearing the cost of following rules to keep your produce safe, the bigger the farm, the better, according to a 2018 USDA study. 

Why the continued downward slide in the number of farms? There are many factors – from lower prices at the farm gate, an aging farm population, increased regulatory concerns, and environmental pressures. However, if a family is going to stay in the business today, it typically either becomes specialized or grows the size of its operation. 

Specialization frequently requires more labor, paperwork, and requirements from product buyers. Expansion often comes with more regulations, paperwork, and scrutiny. Both choices come with advantages and disadvantages.

Don’t fall for the folklore about farm size. There is no perfect size; all sizes and shapes of farms are needed to meet our nutritional needs. The same is true with food. There is no perfect food choice. Remember, the more removed you are from a place, product, or practice, the more likely you are to fall for folklore to help you feel good about your food.

Eating Meat and Drinking Milk Are not Environmentally Irresponsible 

Cattle are amazing recyclers, even if they do burp and fart. They’re ruminants, meaning they have four special compartments in their stomach that allow them to digest food we cannot, recycling forages from land that can’t grow your food. What’s really cool about ruminants is that they make use of land that would not be productive otherwise. As much as 70% of all agricultural land globally is rangeland that can only be utilized as grazing land for ruminant livestock, according to the Foreign Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2013.

Why? Cattle’s unique digestive systems allow them to process grasses, hay, and corn; this is an important part of their diet. A key part of digestion is belching up their partially digested cud and chewing it. Gross perhaps, but it allows grass and protein to be converted into meat and milk. Amazingly enough, the FAO study also shows direct greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. livestock have declined 11.3% since 1961, while production of livestock meat more than doubled due to more efficient farming practices.

Please enjoy your meat without feeling like you are damaging the planet. Meatless Monday is a bit of a fairy tale in itself because you’re not going to save the environment by eliminating a key protein source one day of the week.

Animal Agriculture Decreases Carbon Footprint

Even if Americans eliminated all animal protein, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6% in the U.S. There is actually a decreasing carbon footprint for animal agriculture, and this is a trend that will continue as long as livestock producers are allowed to improve their efficiency through modern technology.

As the scale and impacts of climate change become increasingly alarming, meat is a popular target for action. Advocates urge the public to eat less meat to save the environment. Some activists have called for taxing meat to reduce consumption of it.

Reality: Even if ALL Americans adopted Meatless Monday, there would only be a 0.5% impact. Personally, I choose protein and balanced nutrition over this nominal number. Make your choice according to your own standards, but know consumption of meat does not have massive environmental consequences.

What About Other Gases?

Generation of the electricity that powers houses like yours creates seven times more greenhouse gas emissions than the methane of ALL the livestock in the U.S., according to EPA, 2016. Humans need to take responsibility for the gases created by their lives before pointing the finger at meat and milk. All of agriculture accounted for 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (animal ag is only 3.9% of that), as compared with electricity production (28%) and industry (9%).

Transportation in the U.S. also generates seven times more greenhouse gas emissions than methane from livestock, a fact that has always made me wonder why SUV-driving consumers, or even those in Camrys, raise questions about meat when drivers could lessen their personal impact far more quickly through a change in vehicles.

That’s very different than the incorrect 2006 FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which armed environmental bullies and received widespread international attention. The grossly exaggerated figures around animal agriculture’s impact were later corrected by the report’s senior author, Henning Seinfeld, but the damage from misinformation was already done.

Sustainability Is More Than Just the Environment

Work has been ongoing to improve sustainability across the meat case, from beef to pork to turkeys. Wanda, a pork farmer from Minnesota, talked about the focus she and her family put on sustainability. “The technology is there to help us be more sustainable. Our hogs use less water and less food. Manure is recycled from under the barn, and it’s a far better nutrient. It’s the ultimate recycling program.”

Another example is a Michigan turkey farm that powers 400 average American houses through used turkey litter that is burned to create electricity. The litter is the result of a clean waste system that results in a zero-carbon footprint. It’s not folklore; many farms are amazing examples of creativity in solving problems that impact us all. Efforts will continue to be made to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment; be sure you’re getting information from a farmer about this rather than from a bully.

Sustainability has both environmental and economic dimensions. It is not an either/or proposition. Sustainable practices encompass both dimensions, as well as a social dimension. Giving up meat will not save the climate, but eating meat does help family businesses and provides nutrition for your own family.

Personally, I believe it’s wise to pick up a pork loin and some hamburger, turkey legs, lamb roast, or chicken breasts on every trip to the store, because the nutrition provided by meat easily outweighs any negative environmental impact. My family needs that nutrition, and I won’t let food folklore or bullies sway my standards. How about you? 

About the Author

Michele Payn connects the people and science of food and farming as principle of Cause Matters Corp. She has worked with farmers in more than 25 countries. She founded AgChat and FoodChat on Twitter, is the author of three books, and hosts the Food Bulllying Podcast. She lives with her husband and daughter on a small farm in central Indiana.

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