Fast Food Nation Author and Food Inc Co-Producer Visits South Dakota

Posted: 10/21/2011

Posted By: Kelly Nelson

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to investigative journalist and author, Eric Schlosser speak at South Dakota State University.  If you are not familiar with Schlosser's work here is a brief background.  Schlosser has written about migrant farm workers in California, spent time with meatpacking workers in Texas and Colorado and told the stories of marijuana growers, pornographers and victims of violent crimes.  What Schlosser is most noted for is writing the book Fast Food Nation and being a co-producer in the making of the film Food Inc.

Both of these last two endeavors I mentioned are very controversial in the agriculture community.  While I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, I do feel there is some responsibility that comes with that.  A person needs to be accurate and disclose full truths in their tellings.   During Schlosser's visit to the SDSU campus, the Performing Arts Center was packed full of students, professors and community members eager to hear what this journalist had to say about our state's number one industry.  Much of what Schlosser said did not come as a surprise to me or others in attendance.  Much of what he had to say was full of half truths and facts twisted to suit his message which ultimately is: organic production is best and anyone who does not produce food this way is doing harm to the environment, livestock and people. 

Throughout his speech there were many things that caught my attention and the first being the following.  "American cities have waste management facilities.  Feedlots do not.  They have pits and lagoons and they leak."   I would like to jog everyone's memory back to last summer when the city of Sioux Falls had to release thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the Big Sioux River, twice!  Lagoons and pits on farms are regulated by the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) and if there is a problem, there are regulations and protocols in place to deal with those situations immediately. 

Schlosser talked a lot about how there are less farm families and seemed to blame the reason for less farms because corporations are getting bigger.  He does not mention that 98% of South Dakota farms are family owned and operated.  He forgets to mention that many farms have gotten bigger as a way to incorporate Grandpa, Dad and Son in the picture.  He forgets to mention that most leave the farm because there are other opportunities and lifestyles they want to pursue that are much less labor intensive then the family farm.

Schlosser spent time talking about how the European Union banned the use of antibiotics in livestock and suggests the US should follow that model, because antibiotic use in livestock has lead to the rise of new illnesses not being able to be treated by antibiotics.  This assumption has not been scientifically proven, what research actually points to in the debate of antibiotic resistance is the overuse and improper use of antibiotics by humans themselves when treating an illness, not consumption of meat, milk and eggs. 

Schlosser does forget to mention another point in the EU antibiotic debate:  In Denmark after some antibiotics were banned more livestock and poultry became sick and required greater use of therapeutic  antibiotics.  So the elimination of antibiotics in Denmark has not led to an impact on the incidence of antibiotic-resistant food-borne illness in humans.  The end result:  More expense for the family farmers Schlosser seems so concerned about.

Of course there was also discussion on GMO's as South Dakota farmers are leading the country in use of this technology.  Much of what Schlosser talked about was assumptions and had no scientific evidence to suggest GMO's are bad for the environment or our people.  If GMO's were bad for the environment, livestock and people; the FDA, USDA and FSIS would not allow the approval and use of them, plain and simple.

Their  were many bright SDSU agriculture majors who had some tough questions for Mr. Schlosser.  In particular one question was asked in different ways about three times and that was:  With the population expected to reach 9 Billion people by the year 2050 how do you suggest we feed the world?  Do you really think only organic farming will feed these people?

Of course Schlosser danced around the question and I do not believe ever gave a real answer to the question asked of him three times. 

Today's agriculture is the most sustainable it has ever been.  We have the ability to produce more on less land.  In 1950 one U.S. farmer fed 30 people.  Today one U.S. farmer feeds 155 people thanks to the use of safe, innovative technologies.   Studies have also shown U.S. agriculture has significantly reduced its carbon footprint.  For example in a Washington State University study, it shows the dairy industry has reduced its total carbon footprint by 44% since 1944.  Overall animal agriculture accounts for only 2.8% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in this country.

Everyday we use technology in our lives:  cell phones, IPADS, GPS, computers, satellite TV; the list could go on.  Here is my question:  If we do not live like we are in the 1950's, why do people think we should farm like we are in the 1950's?  The use of GMO crops and confinement barns for cattle and hogs should not be condemned.  Agriculture is moving on with the times like the rest of the world.  If our ancestors knew what we were capable of today I think many would rejoice in the fact that operating a farm does not have to be as difficult as it used to be. 

Through-out the entire two hour speech and question and answer session, Schlosser did not say a whole lot that myself or other agriculture enthusiasts in the audience agreed with.  There was only one thing I could think of that he and I would agree on and that is:  "Most Americans have never visited a farm, met a farmer or have any idea on what goes on, on a farm." 

With that I encourage you all to continue to tell your stories.  When opportunities like this come about, make an appearance and let it be known you are involved in production agriculture, proud of it and willing to tell your story.  If you do not stand up and say something, someone like Mr. Schlosser will, and your story may not be told the way it should be.


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