Monday, May 27, 2013

Doing Ourselves a Disservice

A few days ago Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker wrote this satirical piece about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia resigning as a Boy Scout scoutmaster.

Now it's starting to pop up on Facebook and other places as gospel.

Hold up and let's take a breath.

1) Scalia rarely gives interviews or makes public comments, particularly about issues the high court is still weighing (DOMA) and especially regarding hot button issues such as gay marriage.

2) I question if folks who are posting and reposting this story even read it, or just read the headline and thought, "We've got one for our side!"

Consider this line from the article: “Some of the happiest memories of my adult life have been as a scoutmaster. Huddling under blankets around the campfire, and so forth. But now, all of that has been ruined. Ruined.” 
Is there any way possible to read this in which it doesn't make Scalia sound like a pedophile?
Then this one: "Shortly after sending the letter, Justice Scalia destroyed his scoutmaster uniform in the blazing fireplace of his Supreme Court office."
Who knows if he really has a fireplace in his office or not, but doesn't that strike you as brash reaction by someone who is so seemingly cool and levelheaded?

3) Marty Duren warns us, especially as Christians, that "The good news of Jesus should not be obscured by our penchant for spreading error riddled bad news."  Read that article here.

As Christians, we do not help ourselves, the church, or the cause of Christ by blindly repeating and sharing stories like these.  At best we appear to be lazy and sloppy.  At worst we appear to be incompetent and violators of  the 9th commandment.

How can we expect to be taken seriously on any number of significant issues when we do not offer up any credibility?  Christians need not be FoxNews 2.0.  Christians need be faithful disciples of Christ, a disciple who has done their homework.     

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Joel Salatin & Monsanto, Part Deux

This post doesn't really deal much with anything to do with the title, I mostly just wanted to use the word deux.  Now I can feel like a co-producer on one of the Hot Shot movies.

Marty Duren took the time to read my post and his response was gracious, logical, and fair.  This is what makes him one of my favorite people to read.

Since tractors nowadays drive themselves, I had time to think about my previous post and some of Marty's and Jay's feedback.  I think fundamentally we agree, or, at least I don't have any problems with their feedback.  I'm trying to approach this topic from the perspective of how can we feed a growing global population.  In other words, what's it going to take in terms of production, technology, economic factors and so forth.  That's what undergirds most of my thought processes, at least on this topic.

I had some additional random thoughts and considerations on the topic (some of which can be connected to the previous post), so I'll just spill them all over this page in no particular order.  Hopefully I'll remember most of them.  Here we go:
  • It's easy for us in the U.S. of A to say things like "don't eat meat" or "only eat organic." But try that line on someone in India or Ethiopia.  How does that help the rest of the world?  What does that do to help alleviate poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in third world countries?  They just want to eat, and would like to know another meal will be there the next day too. 
  • Vegetarianism is fine too, but as Jim Gaffigan states, animals are "fun to pet but better to chew." 
  • If I get sick enough, I go to the doctor and they usually give me an antibiotic.  People do this for themselves, and for their pets.  Why not do this for livestock as well?  The same thing can be said for vaccinations.  People get them, pets get them, how about cows?  Granted, this is a multi-facited issue with multiple approaches on how to care for and feed animals and how to raise them, impact of droughts etc.,  in other words there is a lot more to this than sad looking pictures of CAFO's, but I'm happy for people to have the choice.  If you want to only eat grass fed, free range, organic, antibiotic free beef or poultry, that's great.  There's a market for that, and people are willing to pay a premium to have that.  If you're content with McDonalds, there's a market and a medical field for that as well. 
  • I know of now other industry in the United States more heavily regulated, moderated, tested, or scrutinized than agriculture.  It's not fail safe, that's been proven.  But I feel safe to eat the salad and the steak from the grocery store or the local restaurant.
  • When a seed is altered to make it tolerant or resistant to something, it's been genetically modified, hence GMO's.  The two common GMO seed traits we use are plants that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) for weed control and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) which protects the plants against worms.  Roundup attacks an enzyme in plants that humans don't have, and Bt is naturally occurring in the soil.  The funny thing about Bt is that it is an "approved" insecticide spray on organic crops, but when it's incorporated into a seed, it's now an evil GMO.  Another common corn herbicide goes by the name Callisto, and its active ingredient is derived from the chrysanthemum flower.  
  • With all that, those darn weeds and insects still come back.  Maybe they don't stick around poisoning the soil as much or as long as we're sometimes led to believe.  Perhaps sunlight and soil microorganisms start breaking them down or feeding on them immediately.  Thanks for the thistles Eve. 
  • If I used commercial fertilizer mined from the Earth, I get blamed for mining from the Earth and polluting the water.  If I use manure as fertilizer I get complaints about the odor and polluting the water.
  • If I till the ground I get accused of raping the soil and creating erosion, polluting the water, dusting the air, and burning too much diesel.  If I go No-till, I significantly reduce erosion and fuel use, but I use more herbicides to achieve weed control, and I pollute the water.  2 out of 4 isn't bad.    
  • Biotechnology is not the end all, but in my opinion it helps get us toward the goal of feeding people.  Community gardens, farmers markets, buying local are all great ideas and should be utilized.  I'm just not convinced we can feed the masses with those methods alone.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Joel Salatin and the Monsanto Dilemma

I don’t know Marty Duren but I wish I did.  Based on his writings, I can tell he is someone I’d like to hang out with.  In fact you should go now and bookmark his website, and regularly check his blog, “Kingdom in the Midst.”  After that, go and order a copy of his book, “The Generous Soul.”  Then tell everyone you know about both.  I think we both live in the same state, Tennessee.  I think Duren works for Lifeway, and I used to work at a Lifeway bookstore.  And, we share a mutual friend in The Nature Boy Jay Sanders.

On Monday Duren wrote a piece entitled “What Charles Darwin and John Deere have in common.”  Myself being a farmer, I was of course drawn in by the use of the words John Deere.  Why?  Because nothing runs like a Deere. (rim shot)

With the exception of the cattle feedlot photo which could have used some more context it was, as usual, a splendid article.  Check it out at the above mentioned site.  I noticed after reading it a link to a review Duren posted about six months ago regarding a book written by Joel Salatin.  (Salatin is among others things, a popular lecturer on food related issues and his Polyface Farms was featured in the documentary Food Inc.)  Somehow I had missed this, so I read it as well.  Read that one also.  If I may, it is with this article that I want to quibble.

In particular, this line is what I’d like to focus on:
Are food consumers the beneficiaries when the food chain is increasingly controlled by a corrupt, multiple-fined company like Monsanto–the Planned Parenthood of the food industry–whose greed is exceeded only by the shamelessness with which they advance it?
(There is also a line about subsidies, but that’s a topic for another time)

Since I’ve yet to read this Salatin book, I’m not sure if these are Duren’s or Salatin's words, but either way to compare Monsanto to Planned Parenthood is a fairly egregious charge.  I’m no Monsanto apologist, and I’m certain Monsanto will not be elected to the business ethics hall of fame if such a thing existed, but here’s the deal.  Monsanto produces genetically modified seed.  This is no secret.  So does DuPont.  And Syngenta.  And BASF.  And Dow.  And Bayer.  And the list goes on.  They’ve been doing it for years and will continue doing so.  And as such, they own the patents and the rights to the use of their property.  That’s fair.  Each year, we sign a license agreement stating we understand this and agree to play by the rules.  Farmers who don’t play by the rules and get caught are subject to severe penalties, such as the case with Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman.  We pay a premium to use this seed, and the folks who save their GMO seed year to year are guilty of theft.  One of the misnomers about Monsanto is that they force farmers to use their seed.  Not hardly.  I can grow whatever seed I want including non-genetically modified seed, the good ol’ conventional stuff.  It’s readily available as well.  We personally use GMO seed on our farm because with it our yields are steadily increasing, it helps us be more efficient, and it actually reduces our pesticide use.  Given our current environmental conscience, these are good things.  Is Monsanto a friend or enemy of the farmer?  The answer to that question is probably yes.  They’re a frienemy.  Multi billion dollar companies tend to get treated like the evil empire, but lets not stoop as low as comparing them to Planned Parenthood.  Call them the Yankees of seed production.

What makes Salatin, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and others appealing is their honesty, sincerity, passion, and ability to articulate their position.  However, this farmer believes these guys often only give one side of the story and with their smooth speech people are seduced into believing that their line of thinking is the only way.  And when I get an opportunity to perhaps shed light from another perspective, I kinda feel like I’m duty bound.  No doubt these gentlemen appeal to a growing niche market, and each have helped propel a national discussion on food matters.  For that I’m appreciative.  Nor though am I na├»ve enough to forget that global population is booming, people are hungry, and we’ve got food to produce.

In other places Salatin talks about poisoning the water and raping the soil, but much of this seems to me to be conjecture spurred by over zealous documentaries and lecture circuits.  One year recently we were using chicken litter (manure) as our primary source of fertilizer (something Salatin would be proud of) and wouldn’t you know someone threatened to sue us over the smell and potential groundwater contamination.  Much more could be said on this.  Stories like that are all too normal around America’s farmland.  Sigh.  What’s a farmer to do?

Is Salatin right or is Monsanto right?  That’s debatable.  They likely both are, in part.

Should we be using GMO seed?  That open for debate also, but I see numerous benefits.

Consider this, who’s more likely to create corn that can produce its own nitrogen?  Who’s more likely to create drought resistant wheat that can be grown in countries like Uganda and Ethiopia?  Consequently, who's also likely to charge so much for said seed that no third world country farmer can afford.  Levon Helms words ring true: "The poor old dirt farmer can't run no corn cause he ain't got no loan."  Or, who’s more likely to produce another documentary that fits a narrative of railing against the evils of modern agriculture, only giving one half of the picture while simultaneously blaming our healthcare crisis on cows and corn as opposed to gluttony and excessive antibiotic use?

In his Darwin/Deere article, Duren is correct when he said: “Whether Salatin is 100% accurate, like most things, can be debated. What he brings to the forefront, and what is critically important, is the need to avoid fragmented thinking. We are not moving toward truth when we isolate parts from the whole. Instead, we make truth more elusive.”

I agree, but it helps me sometimes to fragment things down into there parts before putting them back into there whole so that I can gain a clearer understanding of what, or where, the truth actually is.