Commentary: Eating is just too dangerous

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Our food system is broken. It’s true. I read it on the Internet.

In fact, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of “experts” on the Internet more than happy to inform you that in this modern age of iPhones and iPads, eating is just too dangerous. Further, you should be aware that the food you’re eating is not just killing you and your family it’s killing the planet, too.

If you were hoping that 2013 might bring some sanity into the discussion about the safety and sustainability of the food American farmers provide, New York Times columnist - and self-proclaimed foodie - Mark Bittman dispelled such notions with his first column of the New Year.

“Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year – nearly half of all deaths – and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases,” Bittman wrote. “And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.”

Wow. That part about agriculture using “10 times as much energy as it produces” without any attribution stopped me dead in my tracks. I guess folks are just supposed to swallow that whopper whole, but Bittman doesn’t stop with the criticism.

He says our food system has “been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals…I could go on.”

There you have it – agriculture is the root of our nation’s health and environmental problems. If we believe half of what Bittman claims, those of us who have ever driven a tractor or bucked a bale of hay should feel guilty about contributing to diabetes, heart disease and the melting polar ice caps.

Bittman, however, cares not a whit about whether you or I feel guilty. His objective is to use half-truths, twisted logic and emotionally charged rhetoric to convince gullible Americans that our only source of salvation is to build an organic garden on the balcony of every high-rise in Manhattan, and start eating beef from 5-year-old steers that have been read a bedtime story every night. 

Livestock production is one of Bittman’s primary targets, as he calls on Americans to “un-invent this food system.” Specifically, he calls for a movement to improve the living conditions of livestock.

“Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win,” he wrote. “They’ll use fewer antibiotics, they’ll be produced by more farmers in more places, and they’ll eat less commodity grain, which will both reduce environmental damage and allow for more land to be used for high-quality human food like fruits and vegetables.”

Taking Bittman’s words at face-value – and many readers will – is so much easier than questioning them. The problem in debunking such emotionally charged prose is that the truth can’t be boiled down into a sound-bite. With just two sentences Bittman throws a blanket over animal welfare, rising food costs, antibiotics, grain production, environmental issues and the changing structure of agriculture in rural America.

Where do we start? How do we combat this charlatan’s blatant misinformation that is routinely fed to folks who sleep with a cat? And how do we hope to compete with a media Goliath such as The Times that seemingly has no interest in discovering the facts about modern agriculture?

Drovers/CattleNetwork has published many articles about the specific topics Bittman questions. In the coming weeks, however, we’ll examine these issues again in an attempt to provide you with useful information about the success of agriculture, why it offers hope for people and the planet, and how we must work to counter the propaganda distributed by our critics.

For clarity, we do not oppose alternative food systems such as local, natural, organic, grass-fed, etc. However, we acknowledge that such production systems are more expensive and that significant trade-offs result for both producer and consumer.

But we don’t have to abandon the science and technology that helps us provide safe, abundant and affordable food to folks from every walk of life.


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Rex    
nebraska  |  January, 04, 2013 at 07:05 AM

Actually Bitman goal is for the reader to feel guilty or at least hypocritical so that the reader will follow Bitmans advice....regardless of how appropriate it may be.

Tamara Kloeckl    
Illinois  |  January, 04, 2013 at 09:30 AM

Greg Henderson is an exceptional writer and thinker! Mark Bittman is a deceitful thug, using lazy thinking and his unfortunate position at the NYT to mislead people and waste their time. He needs a few months working on a farm, we have a labor shortage anyway.....

Sydney    
Kansas  |  January, 04, 2013 at 09:47 AM

I would love to find out where we are going to find these people to raise enough food to feed the world in the manner Bitman suggests. I do believe that part of our health issues stems from our diets, but not the healthy, safe food Agriculture producers are providing. It's the choices consumers make. Drinking four Mountain Dews and eating a twenty piece chicken McNugget isn't really a healthy lifestyle choice. A tasty 3 ounce portion of lean beef and a side salad would be a great healthy lifestyle choice, and one of my personal favorites!

modern farmer    
upper midwest  |  January, 04, 2013 at 09:54 AM

The goal for writing the highly emotive stuff that Mr. Bittman writes is to sell the paper it is printed in...that said, the formula is somewhat the same as what this country has been subjected to in dealing with our present fiscal crisis... someone gets labeled the bad guy (right now that is the rich people)..and yes, most farmers/ranchers get thrown in there too...either we are ruining the planet or taking government handouts, or some other nonsense... maybe we should all take the next year off... let's see how the balcony gardens fair...hungry anyone??

Jasper    
MT  |  January, 04, 2013 at 10:05 AM

Bittman's colleague at the NYTimes and fellow columnist Jane Brody counter-punches with a very well written debunking of popular food myths. It is a column well worth reading, maybe as you are papering the bird cage with Bittman's smarmy zealotry.

shaun evertson    
Nebraska  |  January, 04, 2013 at 11:01 AM

A useful tactic in countering idiots like bittman is to universalize the argument and extend it to its natural consequences. Throughout recorded history, whenever top-down morons like bittman have gained control of ag production, the yield has been mass starvation. You can also use the "okay, everyone roll your own" argument. If ag producers are killing you and destroying the planet, and you can't trust washington not to screw it up, your only alternative is to feed yourself. Point isn't to "win" an argument, but to ease confused and concerned consumers away from fear-based reaction and toward objective thinking.

Alan Hahn    
Michigan  |  January, 04, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Great article – We are living longer, healthier, more productive lives than any time in modern history. Our choice of food is endless, our plates are full, and our belly’s are more than full…and we have time to complain about the scientific advancements that got us here. I wonder if it is guilt or narcissism that drives some of these “antis.”

Top    
IL  |  January, 04, 2013 at 12:11 PM

I suggest Mr. Bittman should practice what he preaches. He should use one of NYT balconies to feed his clan. I am betting he does not have the intestinal fortitude nor the smarts to do it. Top

W.E.    
KY  |  January, 04, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Sydney: Absolutely yes, soft drinks and fast-and-easy junk food cause far more health problems than beef raised on corn in the feedlot. A member of our extended family recently went into a diabetic coma and died after overdosing on high-fructose corn-syrup-sweetened soft drinks that she had become addicted to. You would be surprised how many farmers agree with Mr. Bittman to some extent. We’re among those farmers who intend to do our best to raise enough wholesome food to feed the world. We were industrial farmers for many years, starting out with a cow/calf herd and row crops in the mid 1960s. We never fed our cows any corn, but we did ship all of our steers to the Midwest to eat corn and nearly went bust doing it. Our calves were deeply discounted because they were efficient grass cattle and got too fat too fast eating corn. We cattlemen are a hardheaded breed. Ruminant livestock have been thriving on an all-forage diet for about forty centuries or more, yet many of us still cling to the current status quo of feedlot production of beef for sale to the big three packers, even as feeders are losing monumental amounts of money per head. In 2003, we decided to keep our steers at home and market them directly to our neighbors in the surrounding area. We fared better, earning respect from many grateful families. Our biggest hurdle is the dearth of nearby meat processors. Calm cattle with genetics appropriate for grass finishing produce quality beef that is more digestible and better for human health when their diet is mostly or all forage. If they're tough, change genetics. Coupled with exercise, the quality protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in grassfed beef can do wonders for all kinds of health problems.

W.E.    
KY  |  January, 04, 2013 at 01:27 PM

Shaun, we have had a conversation before, provoked by Troy Marshall's discussion of the Newtown tragedy. Please see my reply to Sydney, who had the good manners and good sense not to call Mr. Bittman an idiot. Even though he may not raise his own food, Mr. Bittman most definitely is not an idiot, nor is he a "top-down moron." If you want the "roll your own" argument (whatever that means) we speak from long experience as farmers who are working from the soil up to produce the kind of food that our customers need and want. The fact that we dropped out of industrial beef production in 2003 was for us initially a matter of survival. Now it is a mission to which we are committing our lifelong experience and knowledge. We certainly are not afraid of starving. To a very large extent, we have always fed ourselves by our own sweat and effort from our land, including a very small acreage of organically grown vegetables, fruits, berries and nut trees, a single dairy cow, and about 140 all grass-fed cows and heifers. We are not Luddites. We use computers and keep performance records on our registered cattle. We have used embryo transfer and are participating in our breed's genomic DNA testing efforts. We raise all natural all grass fed beef that is in such great demand that we can't accommodate all of our customers. To Mr. Hahn whose comment appears below: Our customers are not narcissistic "antis." They include people with health problems ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to terminal cancer, well-informed healthy young people determined to stay fit, and families with small children determined to be sure their kids don't consume growth hormones, steroids, or antibiotic residues in their meat. We are bent on serving them.

Shannon Gonsoulin, DVM    
January, 04, 2013 at 01:32 PM

I think we as cattlemen and producers of food should realize the perception of what our consumers have. They are "seeing" on tv all the negativity of ag business and food production. So, they are slated towards that from the get go. We have to continue to educate them about what and why we do things. Since the worlds population surpassed the ability to feed itself in 2011, there will always be feed lots and high concentrated animal feeding due to this. However, we can help change that by offering other choices to the consumer like grass fed products. That shows the consumer that we are indeed listening to them and taking steps to be enviromently friendly. We are the stewards of the land and need to act like it. You cannot beat mother nature. We took animals made to thrive on grass diets and forced them into feedlot programs for mass production and efficiency and we need to reconize that fact. We are trying to modify something that does not need it.

Glenn    
Texas  |  January, 04, 2013 at 03:21 PM

Doesn't do any good to print an article in a farm or ranch magazine. Won't get to the folks that need to read it. Same thing for shows or ads on RFD-TV, etc. watched by farmers and ranchers who already know whats good for them.

michael    
kansas  |  January, 04, 2013 at 07:58 PM

W.E. - Your Marketing Spiel, defense of Bittman's intellect and Pandering to ill-informed (intentionally and otherwise) customers with tales of the magical healing properties of grass-fed "chemical-free" beef and organic produce are great for your business I'm sure. But please save it for the suckers. And leave off with denigrating others' legitimate, honest and scientifically proven safe production methods, who find your niche' sales pitches disingenous and self-serving. We in the business of serving millions & billions of hungry people have no problem with your bilking a couple hundred foodies with over-priced products they willingly purchase. We do have a problem with the accompanying insinuations that we produce an inferior or harmful product, as compared to yours. That is the dirty, unethical dealing of the used car sales style. It's fairly common knowledge that if your sales model requires running-down the competition, directly or indirectly, you have a Weak or Defective product. Save your morally superior attitude for your brochures and web site.

Karenh    
Colo  |  January, 05, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Can't let those pesky facts ruin a good yarn.

Karl    
St. Paul  |  January, 07, 2013 at 09:49 AM

Bittman is neither completely right or completely wrong. We all preach to the choir with well worn rhetorical ruts. The "industry" has a lot of dirty underwear. Bittman is merely pointing it out. The "movement" he advocates helps maintain an alternative to the dominant food system. It enables family farms to find marketing channels that do not require massive capital investment just to stay above water. It's an alternate channel. You should taste the product. You should look at sales data over the last 10 years to see if there are any trends in the marketplace. Small farms embracing different value systems are not a threat, they're an option.

maxine    
SD  |  January, 07, 2013 at 07:36 PM

To those touting the claims of their product and stating as fact that "conventionally produced" food is not safe": where is your peer verfied scientific PROOF of your claims? Then there is the implication that only YOUR type of food production is family raised...'it just ain't so!' About 98% of ALL farms in the USA are family farms! No matter how many members, nor how many non-family folks those farms may employ, they ARE still FAMILY farms! They care as much as you do about the animals, the quality and health of the land, and the flavor and safety of the food they produce. They just don't have the need to make false claims. The foods, especially meats, produced by conventional methods are more inspected and regulated than you seem willing to admit, btw. The world needs more food, better distribution of it, and less hype to make some foods appear less safe than they actually are!!! For the record, my family eats the beef we raise, as do many of conventional beef producers. What we eat, is in fact, possibly less high in quality than the very high quality beef we produce and sell for others to eat because it usually is a young cow two to four years of age that lost a calf at birth. It is more costly to keep that cow in the herd due to having no calf to sell for the year. It is very tasty and healthful, but may be a bit less tender than the younger ones typically processed at age 20 months or less. We get high praise from guests in our home for the beef we serve.

michael    
kansas  |  January, 07, 2013 at 08:25 PM

Karl - Defending Bittman with the same gaseous rhetoric you deplore?... "We all preach to the choir?..." "... a lot of dirty underwear?..." What does that mean other than "Bittman is merely pointing it out" that Western agriculture today is ruining the environment and making us all fat and sick? And that "smart people" (like him) would and should only consume local, natural foods (not from a "dominant food system") if possible, and they could afford it? No one objects to honest proposals for alternate business anything, and if that's what you're about, more power and good luck to you and yours. However, if it's "value systems" and "movements" and "small" and "family" and all that Neil Young Farm Aid populism, it is you who are preaching. And it is not to your choir.


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