The Animal Agriculture Alliance is disappointed that yet another anti-agriculture activist voice has been welcomed into the media spotlight. New York Times readers were confronted with some of the most negative stereotypes of modern agriculture on Oct. 11, when Jonathan Safran Foer's "Against Meat" ran in the food edition of the Sunday magazine.
It's not a surprise to see Foer writing such a one-sided account of meat production. In 2006, he helped create a video titled "If This is Kosher..." for PETA to encourage those of the Jewish faith to become vegetarians that included undercover footage from PETA and Animal Liberation Israel. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Farming Forward, a group that he cites within his article that actively promotes the greatest myths of modern farming as fact.
Farming Forward is a vegetarian activist group headed by a business consultant and a professor of religious studies; just as with Michael Pollan, an agricultural background is notably missing. The group's Web site pushes for agricultural practices that were replaced long ago by more productive and sustainable methods, stating that it is "easier to see inside a prison than a CAFO" and that "99 percent of meat is produced in unsustainable and cruel factory farming methods."
Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch is a farm supported by the group, and owner Frank Reese should be congratulated for the effort he has put into developing a niche market. It's important to note, however, that there is a cost associated with raising birds like this - two fresh Cornish chickens from Reese's farm cost $94 and 15 pounds of ground turkey goes for $104.99. Compare this with the $7 rotisserie chicken available at your grocery store and you can see why many people simply can't afford to eat the old-fashioned way.
It's easy to slap a label on farms if you have never seen one with your own eyes. It is important to remember that all farms, regardless of size, are operated by people who dedicate their lives to producing food for the rest of us to eat. There are nine states with anti-corporate farming laws, but six of them still rank in the top 10 for hog inventory. Actions taken against corporate farming haven't affected the number or size of farms in those states because family farms make up 98 percent of all farms in the U.S.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, 91 percent of the 2,204,792 farms in the U.S. are classified as "small." The average farm size is 418 acres, and large family farms, those making between $250,000 and $500,000 in sales, account for 9 percent of total farm numbers and 63 percent of total farm product value. The USDA's Economic Research Service created a report on producers who leave the industry, stating that "the life cycle of farm operators is important in understanding farm exits because most U.S. farms are fairly small family businesses and the life of the farm is correlated with the life of the farmer."
Foer writes that modern farms are miserable for the environment, farmers, public health, biodiversity, rural communities, global poverty, and so on. There are many facts that help disprove this unfounded statement. For example, of the top ten pork-producing states, three are ranked in the top 10 with the lowest poverty rates. ﾠﾠ
Before pinning agriculture with the brunt of environmental criticism, look first to our own human waste disposal system. During the last quarter of 2007, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported 31 discharge incidents that totaled to more than 2 million gallons of human sewage in the state's waterways. Over that same period there were just five incidents of animal manure discharge that amounted to less than 8,500 gallons. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing mandatory manure management requirements to protect water quality that all large livestock and poultry producers must fully comply with.
Foer defends his decision to raise his children meat-free by saying that they are healthier without it, but it's not a fair statement to say that vegetarians are better off than meat-eaters. Nutritionists suggest that eating a balanced diet full of fruits, veggies, grains, and fiber is critical to good health. Protein is also essential and researchers continue to undercover new findings about the importance of including lean meats in the diet. Recent studies have shown that increased levels of protein can curb appetite, improve heart health, and help lower risk for many chronic illnesses. The USDA's MyPyramid outlines that we should receive 15 percent of total calories from a protein source. That number is expected to increase even higher when the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are released.
It is Foer's discussion of the morality of eating meat that is the most unnerving and confusing. He remembers as a child being confronted by a vegetarian babysitter and never coming up with a way to morally defend being a meat-eater. He later asks why it is considered less moral to rape an animal rather than killing and eating it -- a question that seems to criminalize the work of farmers and ranchers. The moral decision to eat meat shouldn't be based on such irrational and emotional arguments but on the science that ensures that farm animals receive the best care possible throughout their lives. Farmers and ranchers maintain high standards of animal welfare not only because it ensures a good quality product at market but also because it is the right thing to do. They understand that families trust them to bring animals from farm to plate, and they take that trust very seriously.
Foer closes his piece with a quote from his great-grandmother: "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."
When it comes down to it, there simply are some things that matter. Agriculture is one of them. ﾠFarmers and ranchers provide the food that is the foundation for this country's security and prosperity. It is not fair to have the livelihoods of America's farmers and ranchers threatened by the spread of misinformation. America's agriculture industry is worth defending.