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, martyduren.com 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 naïve 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. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for reading, even if Rick Flair had to be the conduit.

    I think the offending paragraph is mine, though I don't remember offhand. Either way I agree with the sentiment.

    My distaste for Monsanto runs far outside GMO issues. With a hubris that parallels the cigarette industry for secrecy they have produced and used dangerous chemicals since 1937. The lawsuit in which one of these came to light was in the 1970s. That's nearly 40 years of secrecy. Dioxin and Agent Orange could be added as well.

    My Planned Parenthood metaphor is, I think, accurate. They provide many services to people in need of them, while causing the deaths of more unborn children than any other single entity. Monsanto has proven itself, on multiple occasions, willing provide helpful and destructive products--knowingly--all for money. Just like PP.

    I would love to see numbers on the wheat harvest in drought plagued areas. Here is one of a number of such stories in which such harvests were not delivered as promised: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1082559/The-GM-genocide-Thousands-Indian-farmers-committing-suicide-using-genetically-modified-crops.html

    That story is from 2008, so maybe things have changed for the better.

    Regardless, I'm thankful you are farming! I like to eat ;^) Perhaps we could get up for a visit at some point. We are attempting to grow some things this year in our really small yard, and frequenting farmer's markets more often.