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Michelle Michelle We're Quite Contrary About How Does Your Garden Grow
April 10, 2009 11:05 AM   Subscribe

The Local food movement's celebration over the white house garden was short lived. The White House has receive a letter from the Mid America CropLife Association, expressing disappointment that Obamas planted an organic garden. "As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing a safe and economical food supply. America's farmers understand crop protection technologies are supported by sound scientific research and innovation."
posted by Xurando (101 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh. My. God.

Shut the fuck up, Mid America CrapLife.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:08 AM on April 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


Matt Yglesias on the importance of incremental improvements to traditional agriculture.
posted by Pants! at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2009


By traditional, I mean conventional.
posted by Pants! at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2009


"America's farmers understand crop protection technologies are supported by sound scientific research and innovation."

"America's farmers" my ass. The membership list for the Mid America CropLife Association includes Chemtura, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Crop Protection, and Monsanto.
posted by blucevalo at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2009 [16 favorites]


....Would it be churlish of me to point out that there's a difference between the conventional commercial agriculture and "growing crap for yourself in your backyard"?

I mean, hell, this is like saying that the sweater I knit for myself is doing a disservice to the entire fashion industry.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2009 [28 favorites]


Now this is a great example of democracy in action.

Enlighten me please: how many gardens of this scale are crop dusted?
posted by flippant at 11:15 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


OmniCorp would like to remind all consumers that OmniCorp is vital for consumer happiness.
posted by Avenger at 11:16 AM on April 10, 2009 [26 favorites]


Shut the fuck up, Mid America CrapLife.

Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-reasoned argument why organic farming is actually capable of sustaining the world's population as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged, like the Obamas. Why, you're probably typing it up right now. I can't wait.
posted by Krrrlson at 11:18 AM on April 10, 2009 [10 favorites]


A little confused here. How exactly was the local food movement's celebration over the WH garden short-lived? From your links, it is hard to ascertain whether or not the local food movement's celebration has died or is still raging (and as an aside, where is the celebration? Marin? I'd quite like to go!). Indeed, if anything, your last link suggests that, as a matter of fact, the local food movement is still quite supportive of the FLOTUS's garden. However, it does seem as though the celebration in certain industrial arenas has been short-lived - if, indeed, it were alive in those corners in the first place, which seems unlikely.
posted by billysumday at 11:19 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, Michelle Obama was attempting to feed the world out of her back garden and only the elite have allotments.
posted by ninebelow at 11:20 AM on April 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, whatever. MidAmerica CropLife's membership includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow, Drexel, DuPont, Growmark, and Monsanto. So maybe the industry is quaking a little bit, worried that the example set by the Obamas will chip away at their market share. Good.

Except it won't happen. It's the home gardeners that the Obamas' garden is meant to influence. The customer base for the products mareketed by the companies mentioned above is agribusiness, not home gardeners. And as long as family farmers are being chased out of the industry by corporate operations more concerned with a healthy bottom line than with healthy crops, MidAmerica CropLife and its cronies have nothing to worry about. Corporate operations will continue to spray cheap chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides on their crops in order to increase yields and profits. So they should just shut the hell up and stay out of it.

What they should REALLY be focusing on is creating and marketing organic fertilizers and such for the home gardening market. That shit is so incredibly overpriced (and inexpensive to produce), they could make a killing.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:23 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I mean, hell, this is like saying that the sweater I knit for myself is doing a disservice to the entire fashion industry.

I've been meaning to say something about that sweater....
posted by Floydd at 11:24 AM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I mean, hell, this is like saying that the sweater I knit for myself is doing a disservice to the entire fashion industry.

Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-reasoned argument why learning how to knit is actually capable of sustaining the world's sweater demand as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged, like the Obamas. Why, you're probably typing it up right now. I can't wait.
posted by billysumday at 11:26 AM on April 10, 2009 [34 favorites]


Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-reasoned argument why organic farming is actually capable of sustaining the world's population as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged, like the Obamas. Why, you're probably typing it up right now. I can't wait.

Also absent is your explanation of why it can't.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:30 AM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-reasoned argument why organic farming is actually capable of sustaining the world's population as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged, like the Obamas. Why, you're probably typing it up right now. I can't wait.

I think this comment should be recognized for its flawless demonstration of smugness.
posted by gagglezoomer at 11:33 AM on April 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


Oh, Krrrlson, it's so hard to tell whether or not you're dense, or putting us on.

Pop quiz: Hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger. This is because:

a) Humans have not devised enough fancy machinery/pesticides to grow a sufficient amount of food
b) Political strife and unfair trade prevents resources from reaching those who are hungry, including oftentimes the farmers growing food they sell at a loss
c) The Obamas
d) Krrrlson angry!!!
posted by billysumday at 11:35 AM on April 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


Krrrlson is Bill O'Reilly, isn't he?
posted by yhbc at 11:37 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, Krrrlson, it's so hard to tell whether or not you're dense, or putting us on.

He's trolling. It's what he does. Do not take that thing from his hand.
posted by dersins at 11:38 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not a fucking dichotomy. Krrrlson, do you shit in the middle of the street to keep street sweepers employed too now that horses need to wear diapers?
posted by GuyZero at 11:40 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's what he does.

*sigh* yeah. But I never get to accuse people of shitting in the street anymore. So hard to resist it.
posted by GuyZero at 11:41 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Any business engaged in the manufacture or formulation, and/or distribution, and/or supplier of products or services to the agriculture chemical industry in the states of Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are eligible for membership. Annual dues are set by the MACA Board of Directors

These are not farmers talking here.
posted by caddis at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


you wouldn't like krrrlson when he's angry
posted by spicynuts at 11:44 AM on April 10, 2009


I hate that non-organic farming is called "conventional". Organic is conventional. Non-organic should be called dystopic.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:46 AM on April 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


Krrrlson angry!!! Krrrlson is Bill O'Reilly, isn't he? He's trolling. It's what he does.

Ignoring the juvenile insults and strawmen, this thread already has a long and insult-laden discussion of organic farming and sustainability, so read away.
posted by Krrrlson at 11:46 AM on April 10, 2009


The letter doesn't say that they're disappointed in the choice of an organic garden, it reads more like "conventional agriculture has made improvements that allow for better natural resource management and higher yields." It's quite a stretch to say that they're opposing the decision to plant an organic garden.

Way too much knee jerking in both directions.
posted by electroboy at 11:48 AM on April 10, 2009


Backyard gardening is SOCIALISM!
posted by dirigibleman at 11:48 AM on April 10, 2009 [11 favorites]


Look, the logic is inescapable. Someone who likes organic gardening posted a comment on a weblog. That proves that organic gardening is non-workable. You can't deny how compelling this is.
posted by DU at 11:49 AM on April 10, 2009


I have nothing intelligent to say. I can't get past "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!"
posted by nax at 11:52 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ford may write a letter chiding him for not driving to the G20 in Europe and for walking to the toilet from the Oval Office.
posted by GuyZero at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Krrrlson - thanks sincerely for the link to the other thread. Here's a great comment by Miko:

It's been known for a long time that the world produces a surplus of food already. The problem with feeding the population of the world is one of distribution and application, not of not having efficient enough agriculture. It's beyond efficient; it's so efficient we've had to invent new products and new farming methods, unheard of in thousands of years of husbandry, to cram nutrient-poor and indigestible items down the gullets of our meat animals and ourselves just to provide a market for the extra stuff we raise. There's no problem of not enough food. The problem is what we're growing and what we do with it after it's grown.

Sustainability? It's happening. The world is changing, fast, around you. Opinions on whether you like local agriculture hardly matter; real soon, you're going to need it. In fact, you'll be doing it.


Which is a great backgrounder to the story of the WH victory garden and a testament to Michelle Obama.

Again, thanks!
posted by werkzeuger at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2009


That said, it was kind of a dick thing to address the letter to Mrs. Barack Obama.
posted by electroboy at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2009


MACA.org?

I smell a rat. Paul is not dead because he's covered in all those wonderful DOW chemical preservatives. Full circle, I tell ya.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:08 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the only fair thing to do is for the Obamas to build a small chemical manufacturing facility in the White House as well.
posted by snofoam at 12:09 PM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


But I never get to accuse people of shitting in the street anymore.

It's obvious that you no longer live in Tor -- oh, never mind.
posted by maudlin at 12:12 PM on April 10, 2009


The first think I read this morning was an email from a Republican friend, forwarding me a "Bush is dumb" joke that had been reworked simply by replacing Bush's name with Obama's. There are two Americas, people. Real America, where Obama was a University of Chicago Law School professor and is now one of the most intelligent, educated people ever to take up residence in the White House, and Bizarro America, where people genuinely believe that Obama is as dumb as George W. Bush - and so much so that they think that a joke about Obama thinking that "brazilians" is a number is actually a funny, relevant joke. (Apologies to my friend if he ever reads this - I think you're a smart guy generally, man, but what on Earth?)

Guess which America the Mid America CropLife Association lives in.
posted by The World Famous at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Way too much knee jerking in both directions.

Now we have dance critics popping up in the aggie threads. Where will it end?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:22 PM on April 10, 2009


Would it have helped you right-wing nutjobs if President Obama had said, "if you don't build a backyard garden, you're helping the terra-ists"?

Newsflash, dear right-wing nutjobs, this isn't necessarily about feeding the world, or about being an east coast liberal elite. It's about growing some of your own food to eat, so you purchase a little less at the grocery story (which saves you money, which, gasp, helps the economy), and so a little less energy is expended sending lettuce from South America to your grocery store (which saves the planet just a little, and saves the grocery stores / suppliers / growers a little money).

Goddamn, why don't you right-wing nutjobs go back to... what are you calling it these days? Teabagging? Hilarious. Please continue to rail against common sense, it will ensure the Party of Grownups (tm) is in power even longer.
posted by mark242 at 12:22 PM on April 10, 2009


I mean, hell, this is like saying that the sweater I knit for myself is doing a disservice to the entire fashion industry.

Actually, that sweater is a disservice to all of us, but most especially to the fashion industry.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


(which saves you money, which, gasp, helps the economy)

What??
posted by spicynuts at 12:29 PM on April 10, 2009


To whom it may concern at Mid America CropLife:

We received news of your disappointment with our garden with tremendous sadness. When Barack and I had come up with the idea for the White House garden, we had asked ourselves and each other "how can we best tend this garden to satisfy the American people, such as the board members of Chemtura, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto?" We had hoped to have daily flyovers from crop dusting planes to protect the lettuce, herbs and peas from the predatory insects which, as you know, run rampant down Pennsylvania Avenue during Spring and Sumer. Our garden advisors, however, had told us that this would be a disastrous idea as regular chemical pesticide dusting has proven to be an effective method of pest control from not only predatory insects but also human men, women and children. But Barack and I would not be so easily daunted. In our quest to satisfy the American people (e.g. the board members of Chemtura, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto again) we had then given serious thought to genetically engineering our crop garden to maximize yield in the same plantable space. This, however, has proven prohibitively expensive at the small scale of our garden without significant and probably wasteful government subsidies to the enterprise. And while Barack and I believe the American People (Chemtura, Dow, etc...) certainly wanted this garden to be proportionately subsidized in exchange for chemically treated and engineered produce, initial polls have demonstrated a distinct lack of willingness on behalf of the taxpayers to provide subsidy funds for a backyard garden. Lastly, we tried our best to have the garden be composed entirely of corn, which we feel certain would have made the American People (C, D, DuP, M) happiest. Subsidies again became the primary concern, however, as it turns out that the market, flooded with corn and corn-based products, yields a very low sale price for corn. To temper this, we had hoped to sell corn based products through a retail outlet installed on the white house lawn, with such High Fructose Corn Syrup heavy products as soft drinks, candy, ice cream, frozen treats, etc... but it turns out that even with the substantial revenue such a venture would generate, the actual garden itself would STILL require subsidies to operate, even after the government had paid us to throw out over half of our yearly crop. Again, initial polls yada yada yada.

We hope you can understand then why we found ourselves left with no choice but to simply plant a simple garden in the back yard of the white house, despite the considerable desire we both had to appease the American People (as represented by the board members of Chemtura, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto).

Sincerely,

Michelle Obama, First Lady of The United States of America

The membership list for the Mid America CropLife Association includes Chemtura, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Crop Protection, and Monsanto.
posted by shmegegge at 12:29 PM on April 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


I do not think it is possible to do a disservice to the fashion industry.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:30 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


oof, that last line was a quote from a comment above that I had mistakenly copied into the preview box. my bad.
posted by shmegegge at 12:37 PM on April 10, 2009


Have you seen EmperessCallipygos's sweater, Kirth?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:38 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


There is no need to confuse right-wing Americans with agribusiness. A bunch of people in Illinois didn't write to Michelle Obama and tell her how stupid they think she is and that she doesn't get their right-wing values, a group of destructive companies did.

I lived with some crazy right-wingers in the South Bay in California and for them I have very little sympathy. They're rich and crazy and right-wing because they want to stay rich and crazy. But people in the middle and Southern US who are the ones actually being displaced by agribusiness and globalization? Maybe they do the wrong things with their anger, but they sure do have a right to be.

When Barack and I had come up with the idea for the White House garden...

They didn't come up with the idea. Thousands of people demanded it. (I know you were constructing a story, but I think it's an important point. Especially given that it was the people who wanted a garden, and a bunch of companies that don't.)
posted by birdie birdington at 12:51 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thousands of people demanded it.

Demanded? Thousands of people suggested that it would be a great idea, and Obama's PR people decided that it would be a great move.
posted by The World Famous at 12:57 PM on April 10, 2009


A bunch of people in Illinois didn't write to Michelle Obama and tell her how stupid they think she is and that she doesn't get their right-wing values, a group of destructive companies did.

No they didn't.
posted by electroboy at 1:02 PM on April 10, 2009


Pollo, are you saying the Empress's sweater is anywhere near this professional product of the fashion industry?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:04 PM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Beneath this idiotic outburst...

is another idiotic outburst.

And a sweater.
posted by xod at 1:12 PM on April 10, 2009


The Local food movement's celebration over the white house garden was short lived. The White House has receive a letter from the Mid America CropLife Association, expressing disappointment that Obamas planted an organic garden.

This confuses me. The local food movement's celebration has ended because the White House received a letter? What, like MidAmerica CropLife Assn is the principal's office of food-growing, and now the Obamas will be forced to spend their recess spraying the plants with pesticides?

Also, dear MidAmerica CropLife Association: Your name is obnoxious. And gardening does not equal farming. And keep your poisonous mitts off of my tomatoes, too.
posted by desuetude at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2009


Pollo, are you saying the Empress's sweater is anywhere near this professional product of the fashion industry?

Touche and wow.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:26 PM on April 10, 2009


Teamkillers
posted by joaquim at 1:42 PM on April 10, 2009


It's situations like this that makes me thankful for living in a monarchy. The head of state, and their families are free to set any example they want for the people, and the people to a free to follow their example or not (based on the merits of that example and the member of the Royal Family who set it).

For example Prince Charles has been banging on about organic farming for twenty years now.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:43 PM on April 10, 2009


The head of state, and their families are free to set any example they want for the people

Is this a joke? I may be having a somewhat humorless day, so if it is a joke, I apologize in advance for the following:

The President of the United States and his/her family are also free to set any example they want for the people. Hence, the Bush Twins, Roger Clinton, Billy Carter, the Reagans, etc. ad infinitum.

Just like in Britain, in the U.S., we have freedom to criticize the head of state openly if we do not like something that he does. The Obamas are not being prevented in any way from continuing with their organic garden.

A couple of key differences, though: 1) Prince Charles is not really the equivalent of the President; and 2) Prince Charles has been banging on about organic farming for twenty years now, and has been a member of the Monarchy for more than twenty years now. If the U.S. Presidency were a permanent position, with no elections, then the permanent President of the United States would be banging on about whatever he wanted for however long he wanted.
posted by The World Famous at 1:52 PM on April 10, 2009


Where is this MidAmerica? It sounds like a terrible place.
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2009


It's in the middle. Watch what you say about it - they're sometimes touchy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:06 PM on April 10, 2009


Well, it's no doubt the job of Ms. Janet Braun, "CropLife Ambassador Coordinator" (w.t.f) to find opportunities to preach a message that conventional farming is A-OK, and to my mind that is pretty much all there is to this (and given that we are promulgating that message far beyond the sphere where it would normally be paid attention to, good job, Janet). It is a little bit absurd to attach some heavy political meaning to the agricultural methodology selected for the White House vegetable garden, but then that logic cuts both ways. The idea that there would be any need to convince the Obama "to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S" is brainless, we're talking about a politician from Illinois, home of Archer Daniels Midland, I think he probably gets how to act nice about Big Ag. This letter is a publicity stunt, nothing more, and like I said, mission accomplished.

Certain things do jump out at me from that letter, though... like the fact that 7 of 10 bullet points discuss issues that are in no conflict with organic farming (indeed much organic farming is occurring at a scale now that makes differentiating it fundamentally from conventional agriculture on any level besides certain input choices pretty questionable - and the mainstreaming of organic product has proceeded to the extent that relegating it to a "luxury market for the wealthy and privileged" can indeed be dismissed as merely trolling)...

Or that many of the important practices discussed (alternative tillage, contour farming, managed waterways, farming to encourage habitat) were hardly things conventional agriculture rushed to with open arms. I grew up deep in the rural midwest, at the center of a farming community, during the 70's, 80's and 90's, and I can tell you the early pioneers and advocates for this kind of thing were not Big Ag business suit types (they were pretty busy swallowing the family farm whole), and certainly not the agricultural chemical industry.

And you have to look twice at the fact that agricultural chemicals are scarcely mentioned in this letter representing a communication from an organization that, as caddis sharply points out, is basically fronting for chemical manufacturers while claiming to speak for "farmers." Not so comfortable defending their actual products, apparently.

But again, conflating the establishment of an organic garden with some sort of major agricultural policy statement seems pretty baseless from both sides. Personally I garden without chemical inputs because I am cheap, and lazy... gardening is nice but I tend to think Mr. Pollan overestimates the extent to which it is likely to change the mind or practices of Americans with regard to food. Not that long ago I spent some time speaking to an oldster from my church about growing up when his parents' gardening was economically essential to their survival - the only kind of family gardening that could make a real impact on the food economy - and let me tell you, you don't want to try to manage that without at least half a dozen kids to put to slaving on it.
posted by nanojath at 2:22 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suspect that, as a former salaried board member of TreeHouse Foods, Inc. until as recently as May 2007, Michelle Obama is already very familiar with the issues that are important to Big Agriculture.
posted by The World Famous at 2:31 PM on April 10, 2009


It's been my thought since his candidacy that no matter what he did, if Obama won the election, he'd never be able to make people happy. Too many expectations. Same goes for Michelle, I guess.

And Angelina & Brad. Really, anyone with that much media coverage is going to piss some people off on a near daily basis.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:38 PM on April 10, 2009


Hey Obama! Why aren't you pouring nitrates on that garden?
posted by IvoShandor at 3:08 PM on April 10, 2009


shmegegge wins.
posted by Foosnark at 3:37 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


He wins 40 pounds of ammonium nitrate.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:45 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a terrorist he'd clearly make bombs with it.
posted by Artw at 3:58 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


On a related note, James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, and author of the forthcoming Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly argues in the Times today that perhaps free-range isn't such a good idea either. Perhaps, in swine anyway, it's actually causing a resurgence in Trichinosis.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:54 PM on April 10, 2009


This sort of industrial tactic is becoming more and more common. In this economic climate, I guess even the bigwigs are scared. Hell, I went out on a date last night, and this morning received an accusatory letter from the American Porn Council.
posted by zylocomotion at 5:00 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is a little bit absurd to attach some heavy political meaning to the agricultural methodology selected for the White House vegetable garden, but then that logic cuts both ways.

There are already is heavy political meaning attached, for which the garden is just a vehicle. There are four major bills on food policy pending in the House and Senate. The chemical industry reads the same think tank reports that the sustainability folks do, and they have reason to be concerned that agricultural policy will be shifting significantly over the next decade. This garden was never just a garden.

I tend to think Mr. Pollan overestimates the extent to which it is likely to change the mind or practices of Americans with regard to food.

I don't think so - he's a major proselytizer, but the potentials already demonstrated are significant. Americans grew 40% of their own produce during the peak of rationing in World War II - at a time when one in six Americans was away in the service and most able-bodied people were employed full time. That kind of home growing constitutes a dent in industrial agriculture profits equivalent to what happened to most 401Ks over the last year or so. They're right to be concerned. The renewal of interest in home food production may be in part a trend, but these companies are invested in making sure that it doesn't continue to grow.
posted by Miko at 7:10 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Really the Obamas garden should be given over entirely to the production of high fructose corn syrup.
posted by Artw at 7:12 PM on April 10, 2009


Aces, shmegegge.
posted by rmmcclay at 7:22 PM on April 10, 2009


I'm not sure McWilliams is a terrifically brilliant food systems analyst. He is doing very well for himself and his book, grabbing some media attention by setting himself up as a contrarian in opposition to the food sustainability movement, but bases his analysis on a few narrow points rather than on a full life cycle analysis or a holistic evaluation. He says:

Free range is not necessarily natural. And neither is its taste. In fact, free range is like piggy day care, a thoughtfully arranged system designed to meet the needs of consumers who despise industrial agriculture and adore the idea of wildness.

What's different about that than about the previous four or five milennia of animal domestication? This is what we do in animal husbandry, not some slick trick. Wild nature is an invented idea, and I'm not sure that I agree that people seek free-range meat because it's 'wild' or because it tastes 'wild'. It definitely tastes richer, but I've never heard anyone describe it as 'wild' - the pigs around here are chubby petlike things rollicking around in decidedly unwild pens and shelters. No one's under the illusion that they're somehow proud rampaging boars until they end up at the processor. Free-range meats are superior not just because of taste, which McWilliams concentrates on, but because the animals can use their muscles, live a less cruel and confining existence, and generally come from smaller farms where illnesses are much more obvious than in factory settings. Animal health is a concern no matter how you raise the food. Salmonella rates in this one study were higher (I can't find the actual study to determine how they chose the farms with the 600 pigs that produced this percentage), but salmonella is common in pork anyway - 9.6% of pork samples from the grocery store in this study were contaminated with it.

The summary for McWilliams books throws out a couple little facts like "an imported tomato is more energy-efficient than a local greenhouse-grown tomato." Well, duh. Anything grown in (an artificially heated) greenhouse uses more energy than anything not grown in a greenhouse. But what uses the very least energy of all is eating locally grown tomatoes in season. I think McWilliams is the same guy who searched high and low to find the example of New Zealand lamb as something that is more efficiently imported into the UK than raised in the UK itself. It's possible to find cases where this can be true. But only when you look at narrowly selected measures for success. If you look just at food miles and fossil fuels consumed, NZ lamb might just be more efficient from a fossil fuel standpoint. But what about the other evaluative metrics for whether local food is a good thing? What about the national security gained by maintaining infrastructure to produce foods of all kinds locally? What about maintaining open space? What about supporting a farming and processing industry in your community? What about culture and regional heritage? What about the local multiplier effect of keeping food dollars in your community? The whole idea of 'sustainability' involves looking at not just single measures, but evaluating as many effects of any practice as can be identified, being sure not to set negative effects aside because they're not welcomed in the discussion.

The concern about trichinosis is a significant one - alone among the world, the USA had all but eradicated it among factory farmed animals. But here's the thing. Other countries have a higher rate of occurrence of trichinosis than the free-range pork in this study. Wild (hunted) meats also have a higher rate. Cooking pork or other wild meat adequately kills trichinosis. McWilliams frets that we've lost the habit because the pork industry tells us that a little pink doesn't matter. However, with salmonella rates in commercial pork at 39% and above, they should never be telling anyone that. It's meat, and undercooking meat carries serious risks. In short, as long as you're willing to cook your farm-raised pork thoroughly, the risk is negated. And since that pork really is generally more flavorful and fattier, it can stand up to the long slow cooking that turns factory-farmed pork into sawdust cutlets.

McWilliams has a bit of a weird problem, anyway, when he slams factory farming in his last paragraph. You can't get the levels of control he seems to be arguing for without factory farming. There's a choosing of evils that has to be done, and if the evil is "Americans will need to learn safe food handling" that is a better choice to me than the industrial alternative with all of its many negatives.
posted by Miko at 7:43 PM on April 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, McWilliams' sample size for Trichinosis is not significant for the results. 600 pigs tested with 2 free-range pigs with the parasite. No distinction whether they were from the same farm, but 2/300 vs. 0/300 (assuming that the test was half-and-half conventional and free-range) is complete garbage. You can't reach any sort of conclusion if Trichinosis is that rare amongst the sample size. You'd need to compare it to the point where you'd at least get a percentage in the conventionally raised pigs. Reaching that kind of unfounded conclusion that will affect the way people eat their food and produce their food is disingenuous and dangerous.
posted by amuseDetachment at 8:29 PM on April 10, 2009


I wish I had a plot of land to grow produce for myself.

Guess the lowering property prices and interest rates might make that possible for me - if not that I'm resigned to having to move around the country/world every couple of years for the next few.
posted by porpoise at 8:41 PM on April 10, 2009


Actually, it would be best if the Obamas installed a still, and produced ethanol.

As an aside, who doesn't do organic gardening? I mean, does anyone really use pesticides on their gardens? Herbicides wouldn't make sense unless you only wanted to grow corn or genetically modified soybeans.

I guess the only "non-organic" thing could be fertilizer.
posted by delmoi at 8:45 PM on April 10, 2009


I wish I had a plot of land to grow produce for myself.

Two ways non-land-owning people are doing that in my area are starting community gardens (at schoolyards, town parks, municipal unimproved land), and working out deals with people who own land they don't have time or ability to grow themselves. In New England there are a fair number of young farmers who get started leasing land from older people who can't or don't want to work their property any more, but don't want to sell.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on April 10, 2009


Metafilter: Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-designed site with a self-sustaining membership as opposed to simply being. I also detect that it has a professional white background and Twitter. Why, you're probably coding it up right now. I can't wait.
posted by xorry at 10:14 PM on April 10, 2009


As an aside, who doesn't do organic gardening? I mean, does anyone really use pesticides on their gardens? Herbicides wouldn't make sense unless you only wanted to grow corn or genetically modified soybeans.

I guess the only "non-organic" thing could be fertilizer.

posted by delmoi at 8:45 PM on April 10 [+] [!]

In my 9000 sq ft garden I use a limited amount of pesticides to control Root Maggot and Cabbage Worms. I sometimes use a systemic herbicide to spot control pesky weeds around the margins of the garden. With only myself available for labor I don't have the time to do it any other way.

I use commercial fetilizer 16-16-16 as needed, because animal manure unless composted correctly just adds weed seeds. Other forms of "organic" fertilizer are much to expensive, either in time or money.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 10:56 PM on April 10, 2009


Sorry Krrrlson, that I didn't write a huge tome in defense of organic farming. But that wasn't my point. My point was that the letter was a stupid waste of space and publicity stunt in the first place, and MidAmerica should suck one.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:29 AM on April 11, 2009


Beneath this idiotic outburst, I detect a cogent, well-reasoned argument why organic farming is actually capable of sustaining the world's population as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged, like the Obamas.

By 1943, 20 million households had set up victory gardens, supplying more than 40 percent of the nation's produce.

Of course that is not an endorsement of organic methods per se, but of the potential of small, individually operated garden plots in yards and urban lots.

However, based on personal experience, such personal garden plots can be just as productive when operated via organic methods.
posted by flug at 8:43 AM on April 11, 2009


actually capable of sustaining the world's population as opposed to simply being a niche luxury market for the wealthy and privileged

And maybe it's different in Snootyville, IL, (the previously unknown hometown of the Obamas, now revealed thanks to Krrlson's indefatigable research) but where I come from raising a garden in the yard or nearby vacant lot tends to be one of the ways lower income folks stretch a dollar and manage to get along rather than the rarified indulgence of privileged upper-class dabblers.

I suppose organic costs more in the stores but when it comes to raising your own, organic is cheaper.

Just for example, I can get all the loads of horse manure I like just by driving over and picking it up--vs. the fairly high (and rising) price of chemical fertilizer, which I also have to drive over and pick up.

Organic gardening often boils down to using what you already have on hand (ie, making compost out of leaves and grass clippings your neighbors are already collecting and bagging) rather than going down to the store and buying some chemicals that do (approximately) the same job.

This saves on several levels, but foremost by avoiding the cost the chemicals, which are not cheap.
posted by flug at 8:57 AM on April 11, 2009


Coming in late, and on a somewhat tangential note, but regarding Pants!' link to Matthew Yglesias' commentary on a recent Mother Jones article, I feel like the one of the basic premises of that article – that organic agriculture, if it entirely replaced chemical-dependent industrial agriculture, would result in either widespread ecological destruction or mass starvation – was not very well-examined. For example, after a little bit of Googling, I found this article, which cites eight different studies and meta-studies that show organic crop yields to be 80-100% of conventional yields in developed countries, and much higher than conventional yields in developing countries (where many farmers cannot afford to buy chemical fertilizer or pesticides). It also mentions that Vaclav Smil, the sole source in the MJ article asserting that universal organic agriculture would lead to environmental destruction, himself said "that he largely ignored the contribution of nitrogen-fixing crops and assumed that some of them, like soybeans, are net users of nitrogen" in the book where he states that 2/3 of the world's food crops depend on fertilizer manufactured from fossil fuels. That's a fairly significant omission, one that calls into question Smil's current claim in Mother Jones that going organic "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming."

In short, organic agriculture everywhere would not lead to anyone going hungry. In fact, in developing countries where double-digit unemployment is the norm, a return to more labor-intensive agricultural methods (including, but not limited to organic ones) would mean more jobs for the poor, and thus, one would presume, lead to fewer people going hungry.
posted by skoosh at 9:09 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I suppose organic costs more in the stores but when it comes to raising your own, organic is cheaper.

Completely true. All I buy is seeds. Working with the others in my community garden, we build our own plant-based compost and composted manure for soil amendments. We pick up the manure free from a horse farm and bring in our own compost material from home. Veggies from the gardens are cheaper than conventional veggies, let alone store-bought organics.
posted by Miko at 9:13 AM on April 11, 2009


skoosh, also, one of the problems of comparing organic yield per acre to conventional is that an integrated organic approach uses the land and labor differently, and in some cases can increase yield over conventional methods. In small-scale farming where labor inputs are higher, you can use interplanting and double-cropping and frequent rotation and animal-generated inputs to get more edible yield from each planted acre than you would from a large-scale monocropping approach. The monocropping results in lower costs only because it uses so much less labor than integrated organic practice or traditional practice, not because conventional yield is always superior.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on April 11, 2009


I once looked at an organic farming project in a plot which had 80% the yield of the 'conventional' control plot. This is only taking into account the vegetable yield, it did not take into account the worm casing produced the earthworm composter, or the eggs and chicken fed from the excess earthworms from the same composter, and all the extra protein for animal feed from the worms the chickens could not eat. It also did not take into account all the soil improvements from the mixed planting, or the fact that the only thing that had to be brought in from more than 100 kilometers away were the seeds and the water pump, as opposed to all the petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides that traveled thousands of kilometers to get there.

Apart from that, the yield was smaller, it took 25% more labor, and the produce was not as uniform or picture perfect. A failure this project.
posted by dirty lies at 1:33 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


A failure this project.

It's only a failure if you don't take the other benefits and systemic gains into account, and if you view more labor as a bad thing. In an age with not enough jobs, that's not such a given. Again, it's a narrow evaluation that gives some helpful results on individual measuable points, but the overall picture is much bigger. I wouldn't call 80% of convential yield during a first season with an available organic premium a "failure."
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on April 13, 2009


Apart from that, the yield was smaller, it took 25% more labor, and the produce was not as uniform or picture perfect.

....But "picture perfect" doesn't always mean "better" overall.

Seriously, I'd rather have ten really good, juicy, flavorful apples that may look a little funny than twenty of those mushy, flavorless Red Delicious things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2009


That's a great point, too. Ugly smallish tomatoes that taste like a tomato are heaven on earth. I'd happily trade the extra yield right off if it's cardboard tomatoes vs. fresh good-tasting ones.
posted by Miko at 12:04 PM on April 13, 2009


Some of the best apples I've eaten have come from trees that I guess are remnants of long-gone orchards. Feral apple trees? A couple of those trees are at the edge of a local warehouse club's parking lot. Somebody ought to start a website that maps all those trees.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:11 PM on April 13, 2009


Next time I will not forget my sarcasm tags.

Of course the project was a success.

Best peaches I've ever had? Tiny hairy misshapen peaches growing in a dwarf tree among the weeds.
posted by dirty lies at 2:04 AM on April 14, 2009


Next time I will not forget my sarcasm tags.

My detector's not functioning. *tap tap*

There, that's better.

This issue turned up on the Slow Food blog: Free Range Pigs Won't Kill Ya. The links are oddly messed up - I think some editing mishap since I read it yesterday when it was fine - but he links to Marion Nestle's take Is Free-Range Pork More Contaminated than Industrial Pork? She looked into it and discovered the study was paid for by the National Pork Board. She links to another good comment by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future that points out that McWilliams misstated the results of the study - the pork didn't test positive for trichinosis, it tested positive for an antibody to the disease, which could mean that though it was exposed (because it lives outside) its immune system was healthy and repelled it. They write
the authors of the study made it clear that this is a “preliminary study” which warrants the need for a “robust epidemiological study” to determine risk factors and “potential reemergence of parasitic pathogens.”

I think it’s dangerous to use “preliminary” studies to try to scare people into questioning any production method.
What really bugs me is that these 'studies' and statements are so successful in creating public concern and confusion where there really shouldn't be confusion. There's a mounting pile of evidence that sustainable practices are really better in a lot of ways than industrial practices - that doesn't mean there aren't problems to be solved or that we'll all switch over superfast with no difficulties or hangups along the way, but there's enough for us to know we're not confused about these issues.
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on April 14, 2009


Seropositivity means that it's been exposed to the pathogen. It doesn't mean that it's been infected, but neither does it mean that it's immune system has neutralized it.

It's not dangerous to use preliminary studies to question production methods, it's dangerous to go for the naturalistic fallacy that free range is always better. What you need is more studies of both production methods so that you can make informed choices.
posted by electroboy at 1:44 PM on April 14, 2009


What you need is more studies of both production methods so that you can make informed choices.

Agreed. And/or you need to cook your meat.
posted by Miko at 1:47 PM on April 14, 2009


And I think it's the scaring people, rather than the questioning, that the blog writer (and I) object to.
posted by Miko at 1:50 PM on April 14, 2009


Well, sometimes you can't do one without the other, unfortunately. It's interesting to note that the author is a vegetarian.
posted by electroboy at 2:10 PM on April 14, 2009


Which author?
posted by Miko at 2:35 PM on April 14, 2009


James McWilliams
posted by electroboy at 2:58 PM on April 14, 2009


Just because a small, sustainable farm operates outside the realm of conventional agriculture does not mean it's flawless. Agriculture, by definition, is flawed. I thus believe in frequent and intense self-examination. It's healthy, and sometimes, when done properly, even feels good.

I totally agree with him there.

As anyone reading this knows, I've endured a wallop of criticism over my piece on free-range pork in last Friday's New York Times.


To which I say: as you should, because you didn't disclose your sources because of the trumped-up spectre of funding, which has nothing to do with you since you are a history professor, and because you are mostly focused on promoting your book.

I hope my critics are willing to meet me halfway.

If "halfway" means relying on good information honestly examined, yeah. But the omissions in that op-ed kind of harmed his credibility as a source of critique. The thing is that there's not as much money or public notice in promoting sustainable agriculture, yet here we and the NYT all are talking about a guy who's found that playing gadfly, functioning as the anti-Pollan, gets more attention.

Sustainable agriculture already has enough preachers preaching to the choir. I--a supporter of sustainable agriculture--could be one of them. But every movement must challenge its own orthodoxies


Sure, but if you're playing an honest game you don't hide any cards.

This writer is not a scientist. And he's caught some major attention for these flubs, meaning that everything he writes from now on will get the even-finer-toothed-comb treatment. So I hope he's up for the orthodoxy-challenging that involves even more number-crunching and bigger studies and more complex data.

I think the first commenter under this piece put it very well:
It should be possible to offer a critique of CAFOs which doesn't depend upon creating simple binaries and straw men. Similarly it should be possible to support sustainable agriculture while also pointing out the potential for danger in how particular modes of production are operationalized and defined. If, as a movement we cannot do that, then I fear we have simply become a group of fundamentalist fanatics, which is exactly how we are seen by many conventional producers.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on April 14, 2009


I'm not sure the "he's not a scientist" is a fair critique. Very few of the people who write about sustainable agriculture are scientists. Pollan isn't, Alice Waters isn't, yet they're the most often quoted. Even the author cited from the Hopkins Sustainable Development has no real credentials.
posted by electroboy at 6:48 AM on April 15, 2009


I'm not sure the "he's not a scientist" is a fair critique. Very few of the people who write about sustainable agriculture are scientists. Pollan isn't, Alice Waters isn't, yet they're the most often quoted.

True, but they don't focus their writing on science either -- they wear their actual backgrounds on their sleeves. And do their research and cite sources. And don't write op-ed pieces with a thesis dependent entirely upon a misleading gloss on a study paid for by a biased party.
posted by desuetude at 7:47 AM on April 15, 2009


How is writing about nutrition, land use, energy policy and sustainable agriculture not about science?
posted by electroboy at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2009


It's fair to acknowledge that none of them are scientists, but doesn't that make it that much more important that they work very hard to understand the import of what they're saying. The reason I pointed out that he isn't a scientist is that he talks about how scientists are subject to chasing funding and that affects which studies they choose to do, but he isn't a scientist so he can't say he's on politically dangerous ground. He's a history professor. And if her were more informed about science writing in general, I think he'd know to avoid things like overgeneralizing from one study and not being specific about the study findings. The critique isn't that he's writing about something outside his area of training, but that he isn't doing it very well, and we shouldn't assume that just because he takes on some of the same topics, he is as much an authority as other popular writers on science topics.

You're right that Pollan, McKibben, et al aren't really scientists, but they are science reporters, and they have become very well informed about the world of agricultural science. They talk to scientists and work hard to understand what they're saying. I think they've become much better at reporting about science than McWilliams has.

Alice Waters isn't someone I would read for science content.
posted by Miko at 8:32 AM on April 15, 2009


Yeah, my point isn't really that non-scientists can't report on scientists, but that a lot of the more strident claims on both sides tend to come from the non-scientists, i.e. Pollan and the like. For what it's worth, Pollan tends to namecheck studies without revealing much detail as well, as long as they support his position. My general discomfort with the sustainable farming movement isn't so much that people are seeking to change the way agriculture works, it's that people who don't really know anything about agriculture are seeking to change how agriculture works. It's all well and good to have ideas about farming, but the science has to support the social movement.
posted by electroboy at 10:14 AM on April 15, 2009


Well...yes and no. First of all, the science does support it pretty well. And my point with Pollan is that even if he "namechecks" without sharing detail, he doesn't misrepresent and misstate, at least not that I've ever seen.

And though science has a lot to contribute to this social movement, obviously, I think that (a) it is already doing so, at least from where I sit - I'm aware of quite a bit of research going on at our nearby land-grant institution and many of the faculty and research staff are the same people involved in our agricultural commissions and local sustainable food movement; and (b) that a lot of this social movement is more in the realm of economics, history, recreation, urban planning, gastronomy, community development, etc. - a lot of it would be happening with or without any aspect of agricultural science coming into it, and that's perfectly fine, too.

I'm also all for using safety studies. All the recent food scares with regard to safety and health have been related to industrially farmed food, not small-scale farming food. Let's bring on the studies.
posted by Miko at 11:04 AM on April 15, 2009


> It's been my thought since his candidacy that no matter what he did, if Obama
> won the election, he'd never be able to make people happy. Too many expectations.

If Obama cured cancer tomorrow, there'd be a whole cadre of Limbaugh/O'Reilly/Hannity/etc. assclowns blasting him for wasting time and not curing the common cold. God forbid he cure AIDS, as that would be pandering to the Gay/Liberal agenda. He hadn't even been inaugurated yet when they started making the economy his fault.

> Same goes for Michelle, I guess.

In for a penny, in for a pound...
posted by kjs3 at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2009


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