Crashing the Twitter Ag Chat, Announcing #sustagchat | Civil Eats

Crashing the Twitter Ag Chat, Announcing #sustagchat

On Tuesday night, I stumbled onto a phenomenon brewing on Twitter, an “agchat,” featuring a regular discussion open to those interested in talking about agriculture, run by Michele Payn-Knoper, a media consultant representing clients like Pfizer Animal Health, Monsanto, Feed & Grain Magazine, and many other boards, councils and bureaus representing almost every commodity interest across the US.  On her blog, she discusses many of the same issues we discuss in the sustainable food world, but with an obvious bent towards agribusiness.

Here is a quote from her blog, in a recent post discussing the “frenzy” being furthered by the media over the swine flu:

If people were a bit more connected to knowing where their food comes from, our society might not believe all of the hyperbole associated with these types of outbreaks.

Ok, I’m all for people knowing where their food comes from. Pull back the veil, let us see what really goes on at CAFOs in the U.S. Oh, but wait there’s more:

Hogs of today are kept in a closed environment with strict biosecurity standards, which requires showering in and out of facilities… Of course, some are trying to point fingers at the larger farms, know [sic] as CAFOs (an example of terminology that ag should have never agreed to!). Look no further than for an example of finger pointing. Can we again emphasize that humans can’t get this from hogs? And I’m not here to promote one side of ag over the other, but the reality is that larger operations typically have to to adhere to stricter regulations. You can read Smithfield’s response to the accusations here; their people are healthy, the hogs vaccinated and the proper protocol followed. What more can we ask for?

Well, let’s start by asking for an unbiased source testing those pigs. Second, honestly, could she be “not trying to promote one side of ag over the other?” It doesn’t seem possible. Look, some of us may be city slickers, but we know our ag policy, and we recognize the names on her client list. She is just spinning the stories she is paid to spin. (Check out some of the great sustainable advocates on her blog, under the header “Anti-Agriculture Groups,” like Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, and “King Corn Movie“)

But I didn’t just want to write about Ms. Payn-Knoper in this post. I’d rather focus on the agchat itself. You see, I found the format quite interesting, a public conversation on Twitter, between people with similar interests located anywhere. This ‘conventional agchat’ got started with the following questions, written, I assume, by Ms. Payn-Knoper:

Q1: What are differences between the 2 main types of ag production – local & nat./int?. Advantages & disadvantages?
Q2: Family farmers vs. ind. ag, how can you distinguish between 2 approaches (family vs. big) & validate need for both?
Q3: How can we share positive msg about all ag practices, incl organic, even as some claim one is better than another?
Q4: NYC held a food conf. Disagreements aside, they’re interestd [sic] in farming. How do we engage & find common ground?
Q5: What other groups can we collaborate with outside of agriculture strengthen our voice & overcome adversaries messages?

I thought I’d print these, not only because I do agree that in an ideal world, I’d love to openly discuss issues of farming with all “farm advocates,” but also because you finally get the kernel of truth in that last question: how to “overcome adversaries messages?” In other words, we are all inclusive here, as long as you are riding on the Big Ag train.

This talk involved mostly people trying to protect their interests, like Monsanto representatives, PR reps and lobbyists, and only a handful of producers. They were so surprised to be joined by my Twitter friend and sustainable food advocate @meredithmo, that they took to tossing her questions, mostly with that old tattered staple, “How can sustainable ag feed the world?”

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I initially got involved when I saw this question posed to @meredithmo (Sorry if the Twitter-ology is not your thing, look here for a video tutorial):

@mpaynknoper: @meredithmo Could you please tell us more about how sustainable food production that doesn’t involve technology can feed world?

I immediately thought, ok, here was an opportunity to share some ideas.  To “engage” and see what happens. This was before I checked on any of the attendees affiliations. Admittedly, I did jump on board late and didn’t at first announce myself. Eventually I did so, and I made some observations:

@civileater: @mpaynknoper Small ag can feed everyone, its community building. people cannot rely on only one crop, or bags from the sky.

@civileater: @mpaynknoper Not using pesticides and building diverse systems means healthier soil and nutrient filled food…

@civileater: @mpaynknoper growing one crop to trade or sell means you have to buy all your other food, along with pesticide and annual seed.

This was really hard to do in 140 characters. Even harder when I later got heckled for saying there are farmers within cities — Imagine what Will Allen would say to that! — and was called a “spammer” in a blog I will not deign to link.

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What irked me most about this chat was their misconceptions of our movement. The fact is that sustainable ag-tivists are fundamentally most interested in what is best for farmers. We are not just “foodies,” as I was referred to in the chat. We have a vested interest in making sure America has better food to eat, that farmer’s work is valued, and that they have land and health insurance, that kids know where there food comes from, that everyone has access to healthy food, and that our food system is safe and our land and our environment are taken care of. The supporters of conventional agriculture, unfortunately, have shareholders interests at heart first and foremost, and cajole farmers into thinking they are doing what is best for them by hiring chipper PR hacks from their endless pockets of cash who spin a shitstorm of mis-information and distribute it via Twitter and the Internet.

So, as I will never be allowed in another ag chat again, I am hereby consecrating #sustagchat… a sustainable ag chat beginning this Sunday, details to be announced via Twitter (If you aren’t following me, you can here). The hope is to have a regular hour-long chat, which I’ll be happily moderating for now. I hope you will join us and discuss the issues facing our food system. I will post more information, and a question or two for the Sunday’s chat on Civil Eats tomorrow.

Follow @sustagchat for more information on topics and the #sustagchat!

Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Mike
    This is a sad little rant. Some people on agchat may work for companies and organizations in agriculture - why else would they be there! - but they are still people who love what they do. They love farming, farm life and working with people across the country who strive everyday to feed a hungry world in the best way they know how.

    You may know ag, but it is apparent you know ag only from what you see or choose to believe. Perhaps you should step out of your box and take a look - see, feel, touch and smell - rural America. Spend a day with an Iowa hog farmer. Ride in a combine in Nebraska.

    You accuse Michele of being 'paid' for her passion and opinion. That doesn't see particularly fair. Yes, she may have clients, but she also gets her hands dirty on the farm. And loves it. Do you not get paid for your passion and ideas? Have you not chosen a position - and will do whatever it takes to defend that? To argue that you believe is best?

    Also, fyi, the questions you refer to were submitted ahead of time by folks who participated.

    Perhaps you should consider submitting your own and fully participate in the chat. But only if you have an open mind and are willing to see things from the POV of a farmer with nothing between him and the sunset other than his pasture and cornfield.

    I can understand how you would not like the word ‘foodie’. However, when you choose to belittle people – farmers – for how they choose to farm and hold your ideals as being better (holier than thou), perhaps that word is appropriate.
  2. Matt Rosenberg
    "Hogs of today are kept in a closed environment with strict biosecurity standards, which requires showering in and out of facilities…"

    Ha ha, That's so laughable I don't know where to begin, Oh wait I could begin here where we see images of the "biosecure" Smithfield CAFO in Mexico.

    Michele Payn-Knoper is a big-Ag-prostitute. She is obviously paid to use the "internets" and she has likely convinced some Ag-idiots from Monsanto that she is a "new media" guru.

    Her website says it all "championing your cause!" By that I guess she means any cause that will pay here to "champion." Fortunately, she is so transparent that she boarders on the pathetic.

    I also have to comment on the following:

    "Can we again emphasize that humans can’t get this from hogs? And I’m not here to promote one side of ag over the other, but the reality is that larger operations typically have to to adhere to stricter regulations. You can read Smithfield’s response to the accusations here; their people are healthy, the hogs vaccinated and the proper protocol followed. What more can we ask for?"

    What? Is she f***ing kidding? This is wrong in so many ways.

    * Flu viruses can survive freezing, be present on thawed meat
    * Blood of H1N1 infected pigs may contain virus
    * Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead must not be consumed
    * WHO drawing up guidelines to protect workers handling pigs
    (Source: Reuters

    * Who trusts Smithfield to tell the truth? (Maybe John Stossel)

    Her URL should be


    Looking forward to un-paid advocacy that I can trust at #sustagchat

    Thanks for lifting up the Twock so we can see what squirms out from under.
  3. For what it's worth, my spidey senses have been tingling all morning about Ms. Knopfer, since I realized recently that her idea of "ag" and mine are quite different.

    This afternoon, I Googled her. NO RESULTS.

    I used quotation marks, naturally, and only got results when I removed the "-Knopfer." Even then, only a handful of results, most of which were self-referential on her own website.

    I just that's plain WEIRD.
  4. Paula
    Good for you for doing this work. I am looking forward to the sustag chat that will take place sunday evening. Have you given any thought to a sustainable AG social network on NING. I would be happy to discuss this with you. It may be a good way to host a private and or public forum, live chats, etc...there are so many great sustainable ag and food bloggers on twitter and the web that it would be nice to have something for ourselves. Lets talk soon!
  5. Ada
    You didn't find her in google because you spelled her name wrong...
  6. Good points Mike. It's too bad Paula is so "un-civil" in her remarks. Take the title of this post for example. She doesn't want to converse, just preach. In our #AgChat session she wouldn't identify herself even after repeated requests to do so. She's just another example of today's know it all who thinks her feelings are more important than the facts. I highly recommend that she and others like her get out on the farm. Meet some of wonderful people who work intense hours helping feed the world. Get her hands dirty where 1 person is feeding so many more instead of in a rooftop garden.

    Paula's discourse is divisive and does nothing to contribute to understanding and progress. But then again I guess that's what makes her feel good.
    • pcrossfield
      Hi Chuck, welcome to Civil Eats. Thanks for mocking my effort to understand what farmers do in the space I have on my rooftop.

      Facts are way more important than feelings, and so I'm thrilled you found your way here to read some of the former. You are welcome back anytime, just please don't poop on our site because your toxic waste makes bad compost.

  7. Laurie Winkelman
    Your comments about Michele are very rude and unprofessional, particularly because your attacks are personal.

    Michele teaches people involved in production agriculture how to speak up about what they are doing and their passion for producing food. I met Michele through a leadership institute for young people in the dairy industry - and what I learned from her is something that doesn't come naturally to many farmers or producers. Farmers, of all shapes and sizes of farms, are very talented people - however, talking to consumers and discussing the details of farming, in simple, comprehensible language is not something that comes naturally to many of us.

    Michele has chosen a career where she helps farmer groups and agricultural business learn to talk about what they are doing and communicate with consumers - i.e. removing the so-called veil that you discuss.

    As a person so passionate about speaking up for where you want your food to come from, why are you so critical of an honest, sincere, caring, and passionate person (Michele) that tries to help farmers tell you about their farms and animal husbandry practices?

    As a dairy farmer's daughter and someone who has chosen to make her career in the dairy industry, it makes me sad that you don't want to hear the truth about how my dad wakes up every morning at 3:30 a.m. to milk the cows, feed the calves, put crops in the ground, provide a safe place for the cows to live with balanced diets and comfortable places to lie down. Instead, you'd rather believe whatever you want to rather than opening your ears to the people that produce food for the rest of the world. Ask me anything about my farm - I'd love to tell you.
    • pcrossfield

      Thank you for your comments. I do respect and have an interest in what your father does. Thank you for sharing some of his perspective.

      Ms. Payn-Knoper's work with farmers is geared towards furthering the interests of the companies she represents. I hope the post I've written outlines the fact that Ms. Payn-Knoper has a specific interest in agriculture -- that is, furthering the conventional ag paradigm. I think that in claiming an unbiased position, she is being dishonest, and I think that this is something readers should be aware of because she maintains a media profile.

  8. I'll just put one fact out there that says it all for me.

    The Dervaes Family in Pasadena (lets call them a small, hand worked farm) produces 6000 lbs of produce on one tenth of an acre using chemical free, sustainable methods. That is enough to feed their family of four with some left over to sell to local restaurants.

    If a study were done on their practices, my guess would be that they use a fraction of the water that an industrial farm does, and that they are improving the soil that they use, rather than the standard byproducts of soil erosion and degradation that are symptomatic of industrial agriculture.

    So, let's see how 'organic' measures up:

    Better, fresher, healthier, more efficient food production than current US agriculture practice? YES

    Dervaes cropland per person per year: .025 acres!
    Average US Ag cropland per person/year: 1 to 1.5 acres

    Practices that have less impact, or even beneficial impact on the environment? YES

    They encourage soil diversity, crop diversity, and are providing habitat for a multitude of pollinators, while keeping their own impact to a very small footprint

    Sustainable? YES

    The ways that they are living and farming sustainably are too many to list here, I would recommend going to, it's a fascinating story

    So Chuck, let's talk about facts. Let's talk about figures and let's talk about the long laundry list of harm that industrial agriculture has done in the past, and continues to do right now. When we actually open up our eyes and face the truth of the matter, I think the facts themselves would cause most people to get, well, a little emotional.
  9. Leslie Hatfield
    Laurie, Chuck and Mike,

    A couple of things occur to me, while reading your comments.

    1. You accuse Paula of making personal attacks, but you are doing the same by calling her rude and mocking her rooftop garden, and how can you blame her for being offended at having been "kicked out" of what was, ostensibly, an open forum? To be sure, we are all figuring out how best to use Twitter, but there are as yet no official rules of engagement -- to me, your accusations don't hold up.

    2. You also assume that Paula has no background in farming but I happen to know that her family has a long farming tradition.

    3. Most of the so-called "farms" that Paula and others, including myself (disclosure: I consult for a nonprofit that works to support small farmers, but I'm not being paid to comment here) question so publicly are not actually open to the public. Show me the CAFO that IS open to the public and we'll happily grab up some gas masks and take a tour.

    The fact is that industrial ag, in spite of its well-funded efforts to convince the public otherwise, is NOT sustainable. Some of us are interested in supporting a food production/distribution system that feeds people healthful food, allows them to farm for themselves instead of multinational corporations, and save their own seeds as they have for thousands of years -- a system that values public and environmental health for all over the profits of the few, and doesn't rely so heavily on the use of petroleum products which, by all accounts, we're running out of.

    If that makes Paula some kind of "foodie" jerk in your book, well, she's establishing a new space on Twitter for people who want to discuss a more realistic vision of the future, and I doubt she'll be crashing your party anymore.
  10. Here's the real crux of the argument: How can we best feed a growing population? At the end of the day, the conversation must focus on feeding Americans, and hungry people around the world. Here's where the dichotomy, and unfortunately sometimes passionate discord, occurs.

    The United Nations Food and Ag Organization estimates that by year's end a BILLION people are at risk of going hungry, and furthermore, that by the year 2050 global food production must double to keep pace with current population growth models.

    These are sobering statistics.

    At the same time, food producers large and small are at odds in a forum designed to encourage healthy discussion about the most critical issues facing agriculture and the consuming public today. Modern agricultural production, led by Norman Borlaug's Nobel-winning "Green Revolution" nearly half a century ago, has made unfathomable strides in keeping that ever-growing number of mouths fed. The use of modern farming practices, including advances in mechanical efficiencies, the use of GPS in crop production, biotechnology, and advanced animal husbandry, have allowed farmers to produce far more food with far less land than at any point in our nation's history.

    So, while I applaud citizens like the author here for taking an active role in food production, I question the source of vitriol so often directed at "mainstream" or "commodity" producers.

    In other words, given the fact that American farm families must continue expanding food production, and given that modern production efficiencies can facilitate that necessary growth, why are we painting a target on those very farmers' and their advocates? The challenge facing niche food producers embracing marketing tactics like "organic," "sustainable," "all-natural," etc., is the implied assumption that mainstream food produced with modern practices is somehow "inorganic," "unsustainable," or "unnatural."

    Clearly, this implication is false.

    As South Dakota rancher Troy Hadrick so eloquently posited, "From a farmer’s perspective, there are two questions that should have to be answered before any agricultural practice can truly be considered sustainable. First, will the farm and ranch families implementing the practice be able to generate enough income to continue farming or ranching? Will those families be sustainable? And second, will the practice help producers increase food production to keep up with a growing population? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then, from my perspective, it should not be considered sustainable.

    If farmers and ranchers can't make a living, they obviously won't be around very long. That’s not what I would call a sustainable practice. Or if America’s farmers and ranchers are forced to use production methods that do not yield enough food for everyone would you consider that sustainable? I wouldn’t." I couldn't have said it better than that.

    There is clearly a place at the table for food marketers using all of the aforementioned labeling and production methods. Mainstream agriculture will "circle the wagons," however, when niche marketers attempt to unfairly impugn the integrity, motives, or methods without just cause or basis in reality.

    Finally, to attack the moderator of #AgChat because her profession involves advocacy on a variety of business interests is poor debate tactic. Clearly Michelle is a passionate spokesperson for agriculture who is well-read and well-written. Her professional associations give some context to her loyalty to agriculture producers certainly, but listing some of her presumed clients should suggest only that she is respected as a communicator by some of the most successful businesses in the nation.

    Similarly, one could posit that since the author is associated with NPR or The Huffington Post that certain assumptions could be made by those connections, but without actually delving into the substance of the author's writing and body of work, those presuppositions could be completely irrelevant.

    One parting thought: given the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing population with an increasingly diverse palate, shouldn't we as food producers adopt a philosophy of remaining "size-neutral" or "marketing practice-neutral?" That, in my thinking, would be truly sustainable.
    • pcrossfield
      Welcome on board, Andy. You must be a large personality for all the real estate you are taking up on our site.

      Let's get something straight: people are going hungry because they don't have food sovereignty, or the "right" of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems -- by contrast, now food is largely subject to international market forces. The kind of agriculture you promote feeds people processed foods made from commodities -- in other words, cheap, empty calories. Real food is grown by small and medium farmers, and people are becoming increasingly interested in organics because they see the value of protecting the environment and protecting themselves from the many effects of chemical-based agriculture.

      Organic is no longer going to be a "niche" market -- the paradigm is changing, it just so happens that conventional agriculture is falling behind the times. I'm sure you have yet to read this study, saying organic is suitable for feeding the world from the University of Michigan. or perhaps you only read the memo from the UN about population, and not the IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development -- Which declared a change in agriculture is necessary last year in Johannesburg.

      This was an assessment done by 64 government bodies. And you and the other conventional ag-ites deny what that many entities have said. Here is a quote:

      Professor Robert Watson Director of IAASTD said those on the margins are ill-served by the present system: "The incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak... the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios."

      The hungriest are the poor. You want to feed those people? It's never going to happen. Its a well-financed myth. And no matter how anyone attempts to stick up for Ms. Payn-Knoper, savvy readers can read between the lines of her affiliations and her interest in trying to keep this system as it is.

      But the sun is setting on big ag. Time will tell whether or not we will be smart and move to a more sustainable system before its too late, but either way, a hundred years from now if farming exists, it will not look like our current hubristic fiasco.

      Here's Professor Watson again:

      “To argue, as we do, that continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet is to reiterate an old message. But it is a message that has not always had resonance in some parts of the world. If those with power are now willing to hear it, then we may hope for more equitable policies that do take the interests of the poor into account.”

      In other words, change or die.

      Good luck, and if you want to jump on board, you are welcome to. We won't criticize any newbies.
  11. So, I'm curious, conventional ag, folks. Why do you guys so explicitly ignore the UN's calls for organic ag as the way to feed that continent? Or all the data that Rodale has collected over the the last twenty years that show organic techniques can meet or exceed conventional yields?

    And why do you never engage in the debate over how ag will look in an era of $200 oil, which will be here within the next 20 or so years? Or where the P in NPK is going to come from when the P runs out in 30 years, as it is estimated to do? Or the fact that organic farmers are the ones making a decent living and staying on the farm while conventional farmers are the ones abandoning their farms, having been beaten down by low commodity prices, high input prices and exorbitant seed prices. Indeed, if you are so concerned about farmers, you, too would be fighting the input/seed/commodities companies that see fit to bleed them dry.

    You guys go on and on about how you're the"realists" and sustainable ag folks are the starry-eyed idealists. But the fact is, you simply don't engage the larger reality of a resource limited, warming world. You simply don't engage the question of sustainability. It's as if you're pretending oil will always be plentiful and the 2 degree C of warming we're guaranteed between now and 2100 is a fantasy. I ask again: Who are the realists here?
  12. Leslie Hatfield

    If industrial agriculture was so great for farmers, why have we seen, for example, a 90% drop in the number of hog farmers in the US (as well as in Romania) with the rise of Smithfield?

    And if the so-called Green Revolution played out so well for India, why are so many farmers there killing themselves or selling their organs? Why does famine occur so much more often now in India than it did in the past?

    And where is the proof that industrial ag has improved yield in any substantial way? As Chris points out above, small, biodiverse farms have very impressive yield rates, and don't abuse natural resources.

    And again, what happens when we run out of the cheap oil that the "conventional" system relies so heavily on?
  13. Laurie Winkelman
    First, I was not personally attacking Paula, reread my post, it was an observation.

    Second, you realize that CAFO is just a label, right? Regardless of size, 98% of farms are still family-owned. If you wanted to visit a large-scale farm or operation, all you'd have to do is make one phone call - and then go with an open mind to let the farmer tell you about the farm instead of going in with preconceived notions about how the farm is operated.

    I would never criticize someone for wanting to be involved in food production or wanting to know more about agriculture - which is why I am writing on this blog - to help educate. The beauty about living in a free country is that consumers have choices in their food - whether that be the safe, affordable food made everyday on larger farms, or the roof-top gardens in NYC. I am simply attempting to inform you about the 'rest' of agriculture, rather than the narrower point of view that you seem to hold as the only way for food to be produced.
    • pcrossfield
      A CAFO is not just a label, Laurie. It stands for Confined Animal Feeding Operation, sure -- but it signifies that animals are kept in confinement cages, which we are now learning is not the healthiest of ways to house future food.

  14. Paula just to clarify CAFO does not mean cages. A pasture based operation can also fall into the CAFO definition.
  15. Many issues to tackle at once here, but let's start with the first most-abused myth about "big ag," what I like to think of as the ultimate straw man: CAFO's. The public is being led to believe that these food production facilities are somehow producing substandard or inferior food. This is a canard of colossal proportions. Food produced in these facilities is no different in terms of nutritive value than animals produced in the bucolic agrarian fashion espoused by those criticizing the more efficient production practice.

    Similarly, there is no doubt that American's consume a high quantity of processed foods, but I'll argue that if you compare apples to apples products from one production system to the next, you'll find no statistically significant difference in nutritive value. This myth of "empty calories" has nothing to do with organic vs. nonorganic, or any other production/marketing practice, but rather with basic lifestyle choices.

    If I eat a gallon of ice cream per week, for example, the ice cream produced from organic milk will not vary in terms of nutritional content than milk produced conventionally. The "organic" ice cream, however, will be considerably more expense because the base input - the organic milk - is considerably more expensive to produce.

    I applaud any food marketer willing and able to undertake the risk associated with adopting a niche production system to earn a higher price for his produce. If the free market will pay a farmer a higher price for abandoning certain tools and technologies, and that farmer can see a higher profit for his family, I'm all in favor.

    What I am not in favor of is the sentiment I'm sensing in response to my previous content, that "real food is grown by small and medium farmers." Food is food, period. Hungry people need to eat, and those of us who can afford the luxury of a higher-cost, less productive food system should not attempt to force our luxury onto those who cannot afford it, or who would not choose it for themselves.

    Let's put this in a greater context: I am the exact small farmer you claim to revere. I own four cows, grew up tending the family garden, still have a small rhubarb patch, and enjoy a cupboard full of home-grown green beans and tomato juice Grandma canned for me last summer. I am "your kind of people." I am not, however, short-sighted enough to believe that production systems which require inherently higher levels of resources, including the petroleum my detractors referenced, and which produce fewer pounds of food per acre, will somehow magically solve the world's food problems.

    Farmers are farmers, and food is food. The concept of "food sovereignty" is exactly what I'm promoting: that we as free citizens have the right to choose and purchase the food which suits our own needs and tastes. The free market will set a price for a given set of goods and products, and we as consumers will make a determination as to our willingness to pay that price. It is irresponsible, however, for one set of food marketers, in this case the "sustainable lobby," to claim that their product is superior simply by denigrating and disparaging the competing product.

    In my case, I raise Shorthorn cattle to market as seedstock for other beef producers. I think there are definite advantages to raising Shorthorns, which is why I selected the. I do not, however, market my product by claiming that Angus cattle convert feed less efficiently and produce higher levels of methane. Such marketing tactics would be inappropriate and irresponsible.

    The challenge of feeding this growing population is gargantuan enough that all food marketers will play a role. With that truth in mind, we should all adopt the production and marketing practices which suit our own business and lifestyle goals and tip our hat to the neighbor farmer who chose a different path.
    • pcrossfield

      CAFOs are producing marbled meat -- more fatty because animals don't get the chance to move around. You can tell this by taste alone. There is a difference in nutritional value with organic food, its been proven. And by the way, consumers who eat organic don't get toxic sludge and antibiotic-ridden manure used as fertilizer -- resulting in the plants taking in antibiotics etc. All information that Big Ag tries to deflect, but which is horrifying to say the least.

      If most people saw where there meat was coming from, they would be disgusted. That's why you and your posse work so hard to prevent us from seeing what really goes on in slaughterhouses and on feedlots, because its not only pathetic and cruel but scary. (think giant cesspools)

      Empty calories are serious. Big Ag companies like Monsanto want to lead you to believe they are feeding the world, but take a look where their products end up: HFCS in ever pre-packaged, nutrient-less food item in the center aisles; As grain for feedlots; ethanol; canola oil; and now sugar beets. Wow, these are cheap calories, Andy. Other Big Ag focuses on cotton (not edible, except that rapeseed oil is sometimes put in canola), wheat and rice. And doctors talk so much about vegetables because they are stupid? go figure.

      Furthermore, farmers do NOT abandon technology in organic, they use it wisely. They move to this market not just because they can "get more money" -- it comes from a deeper understanding of our impact on the Earth because of the choices we make. You have no right to undermine that.

      "Sustainable Lobby," hmm. I don't know who has been buying our politicians, but it sure ain't sustainable folks. We are the true grassroots movement. In this country, there is no such thing as free markets, or free choice. This is all being determined for us behind the scenes by marketers and agribusiness lobbyists... but we are going to change all that, just you see.

      Conventional ag is so reliant on oil, a finite resource and one that is rising in price as we create wars for it, so like I said Big Ag's day in the sun is done. Now if you would please respond only to Tom Laskawy and Leslie Hatfield's questions if you intend to post here again, because I'm tired of clarifying things for today.

  16. I've been confused for years about whether CAFO stands for Confined or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. They both pop up in the USDA reports and around the Web. But regardless of which adjective is correct, CAFOs haven't worked out so well for farmers…family or the poor sad singletons.

    They may "own" their CAFOs, but that mostly means they're on the hook for massive mortgages that when the chicken or hog contractor decides to cancel their production agreement, is leaving many in the lurch:

    They make a few bucks per animal. They lose a lot of them to illness. And they lose a lot of their neighbors, too, due to air and water quality issues.

    And as Tom L mentions above, this model only works when we have cheap oil to make cheap grain to make cheap feed.

    The best you can say about industrial meat factory farming is that it's cheap and efficient. You sure can't say it's safe. So if this is the "future" of agriculture, you guys are really pushing a bummer of a vision.
  17. Laurie Winkelman
    As Ray pointed out, CAFO does not necessarily mean 'confinement' or 'cages'. It is a label given to farms having a certain number of animals. When a farm is a CAFO, that means they are subject to more regulations and rules to protect the environment and manage the animals than a non-CAFO. It is just a label!
  18. I definitely sense the concerns here about larger-scale animal farms, and as a cattleman myself, I can understand and appreciate a desire to to feed the population in the best manner while giving our animals the highest standards of productive care.

    This is why the "CAFO's are bad" meme is a canard: "The best you can say about industrial meat factory farming is that it’s cheap and efficient. You sure can’t say it’s safe."

    YES WE CAN! Safety and food security is one of the greatest stories of today's family livestock farms, regardless of scale. As Laurie accurately mentions, CAFO's are subject, particularly in my home state of Ohio, to the most stringent environmental regulations, rules that must be met prior even to constructing the first barn. Our state requires permits to build, and permits to operate, and each permit requires a lengthy and open public comment process so folks have an opportunity to express potential concerns before a facility is allowed to be constructed.

    From an animal care standpoint, these facilities are climate and atmosphere controlled to maximize animal comfort. In the case of a modern dairy, for example, we know that cows housed in more comfortable stalls expend more energy producing milk because they have a cool, dry, well-ventilated place to lie and do what cows do.

    More importantly than any economic reason for giving these animals the highest level of animal care, we as farmers feel a moral and social responsibility to fulfill our roles as stewards of our environmental and animal resources as best we can. That's a large part of the reason many farmers respond so passionately when their methods and motivations are impugned in these public forums.

    In terms of food safety, the high level of regulation and traceability in a modern food production system lends itself perfectly to implementing the highest standards of food science. By controlling the animals' exposure to disease and pathogen, the farmer limits the opportunity for quality assurance to be compromised. The food safety concerns of recent news cycles were not traced back to farms of any size, but resulted from minor and temporary lapses in the processing and regulatory schema.

    Finally I offer this: agribusiness is not the enemy. Being driven by a profit motive is not a marker of evil. My goal as a cattleman is to be profitable, but doing so within a lifestyle I enjoy and find fulfilling. I could very easily be making widgets or selling tupperware, but my passion happens to be with beef cattle. My goal is to increase the size and scope of my operation so I can devote more of my time and financial resources toward that passion. I don't know "how big" I need to be to devote all the time I want to my cows, and I don't have a feeling for what constitutes "too big" for me.

    What I do know is that I'd prefer not to have fellow food marketers make that arbitrary determination for me, when I as a free citizen am perfectly capable of doing so myself.

    I hope we can agree on that much at least.
    • pcrossfield
      Your a farmer, and you love your job, that's great!

      There is, as always, much to debate here. But namely I do take issue with this:

      "In terms of food safety, the high level of regulation and traceability in a modern food production system lends itself perfectly to implementing the highest standards of food science. By controlling the animals’ exposure to disease and pathogen, the farmer limits the opportunity for quality assurance to be compromised."

      There is no such thing as full "control" over an animal's exposure to pathogens. Obviously, if you need evidence, we've done a poor job of preventing diseases like MRSA and possibly Swine Flu from generating in these sorts of operations (some might blame the overuse of antibiotics). There is no such thing as a "closed system." Thinking that we mere humans have the power to separate things into manageable parts that will not be effected by each other is pure hubris.

      And don't start a thread telling me the Swine Flu has nothing to do with CAFOs. There is a lot of evidence that leaves this still unresolved.

      As far as animal care is concerned, you obviously have not been to a feedlot (where most cows are raised for meat), where cows are standing knee-deep in their own shit on concrete all day and are fed an inappropriate diet of grain.

  19. Middle of the Road
    I agree with your general premise, but you have to admit sustainable ag has to scale up if they want feed more than 10% of the population. We are not going to return to an agrarian society.
    I also agree with your general premise, but you have to admit that big ag is too big. Economies of scale are not infinite, and lose efficiency after a certain point; especially when external (environmental)costs are not counted. Or are counted, but with taxpayer money. (Privitize the profits, socialize the debt). And what about the depression of commodity markets and the depopulation of farm communities.

    I don't want to go back to driving mules but petro-dependent CAFOs aren't the answer, either.
  20. Matt Rosenberg
    The fact that most farms are family owned (90%) is not really the point. Most industrial farms are “run” by a family. Just ask Tyson or Perdue who “runs” their disgusting chicken factories. It’s almost always a family. Why does this make a difference? I feel bad for the family factory farmers of today, many are in debt up to their eyeballs due to the commodification of our food supply.

    There is a dangerous trend towards a concentration in agricultural production. We have gone from 27.5 acres per worker in 1890 to 740 acres per worker in 1990. It’s all about oil replacing labor in the form of mechanization, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides. This has led to crop varieties dwindling, environmental disasters, poor health, lower wages etc etc… As oil runs dry, this model becomes impossible.

    As alluded to previously, it’s important to remember that there is no shortage of food in this country. This is a widely promoted myth by the likes of Monsanto. “9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. What now?” Reads the Monsanto ad. As Marion Nestle points out, we produce 3900 calories of food per person per day when we only need 2000+. How exactly is that a shortage?

    Finally, who or what someone associates with is not an aside, obvious conflicts of interest are of paramount importance. Most paid advocates are expert in their area or specialty. Being a farmer in no way precludes one from promoting the wrong kind of agriculture. Many of today’s modern industrial farmers don’t practice animal husbandry in any traditional sense.

    It is clear that Ms. Payn-Knoper is advocating for gigantic agro-corporations and it is also clear she is paid for here expertise in both conventional farming and new-media. Anyone advocating for sustainable farming practices is obliged to call her out on her views and question her motives as an agri-lobbyist.
  21. You conventional ag folks continue to completely ignore my questions -- even when I ask you (by internet standards) directly. I presume this is because you simply have no credible answers. I guess I win by default. Yay! Sustainable agriculture FTW!!1
  22. Susan Coss
    I've been watching the comments fly back and forth and it is utterly fascinating, and depressing.

    I am not going to re-hash what has been said previously, but I thought if there was one thing everyone (big ag, small ag, organic ag) was in agreement on it's that the food system we have now is not working. It's not helping farmers (how many are forced out, retiring en masse, or are killing themselves, etc and aren't being replaced); it's not helping consumers (we are still malnourished and/or getting fatter and suffering from diet related illnesses at an alarming rate - diabetes people?); and it certainly isn't helping the environment (manure ponds leaking, top soil loss, chemicals in water). This is not sustainable, people.

    Ms. Crossfield's piece clearly has touched a nerve and shows how far we are from being able to sit down at a table and talk about new ideas and approaches to reform or rebuild a broken system. Knee jerk defensiveness, couching bias, pointing fingers, and the inability to accept the failings of the current system is not going to get us there. We are facing a crisis and we have to figure out how we can work together to solve it.

    For a possible path on how to do that, I can't recommend enough the piece by Paul Roberts from the March/April 09 issue of Mother Jones.
  23. Paula
    I just wish you would lower the tone and actually have a discussion. I know that you are passionate about organics and I respect that but stop the rhetoric.

    I read in an earlier post that you wrote that there is more marbling in feedlots because the cattle do not move. I actually did some research this afternoon by talking to two large animal vets about marbling in cattle. They both said that lack of movement of a cow could have an impact on marbling but it is quite in significant. The three biggest factors of marbling are the actual genetics of the animal, energy intake and growth rates.

    There is no way that we can close the gap on food production if we (both sides) are not willing to actually have a discussion. Apart of this discussion must include accurate information and not comments like "consumers who eat organic don’t get toxic sludge and antibiotic-ridden manure used as fertilizer" of which is not really applicable to a discussion amongst reasonable people.
    • pcrossfield
      Point taken, Shaun. I got a little riled up. From here on out, I suggest only having an even-handed discussion based in facts and sources for our claims.

      We've diverged so far from the topic at hand, I'm closing comments on this post. I'm sure we will have a chance to further this topic in the future. I appreciate you all stopping by and adding to this lively discussion!


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