OPINION: Big-ag criticism comes to state’s ag universitySDSU will show the documentary "Food, Inc.," which takes production agriculture to task. One of the film's narrators, author Eric Schlosser, will visit the campus to deliver the Harding Lecture and serve as the journalism department's Lusk Fellow.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
It’s often the unexpected comments from sources that stick in the minds of journalits.
Barry Dunn said that kind of unexpected thing to me nearly two years ago. It was during an interview following his hiring as the next dean of South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.
I asked him a simple question: “What does a dean do?” He talked a little about the administrative aspects of his job, and then he said this:
“… I think in South Dakota maybe more so than any state I know of, the dean is an ambassador for agriculture — to policymakers in Washington, for example — and I think needs to be a voice for agriculture. You know, I’d love to get in a debate with Michael Pollan about modern agriculture versus agriculture from the 1950s and ’60s.”
The reference to Michael Pollan stuck with me. Pollan is a high-profile critic of modern food production, with numerous books, articles, speeches and media appearances to his credit.
For Dunn to say he’d welcome a debate with Pollan was surprising. I tend to think of college deans as being isolated in their ivory towers, but here was a dean who basically said “bring it on.”
Last week, I recalled Dunn’s comments when I saw a news release from SDSU touting the university’s showing tonight of “Food, Inc.,” a documentary co-narrated by Pollan and like-minded author Eric Schlosser. Next Wednesday, Schlosser will come to SDSU to deliver the Harding Lecture and serve as Lusk Fellow for SDSU’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications.
How ironic for Dunn. He came to SDSU hoping to push a positive message about production agriculture, and now the enemy is attacking him on his own turf, with an invitation from the university and a captive audience.
I talked to Dunn this week, reminded him of his earlier comments to me, and asked for his thoughts.
“I think it is absolutely the role of the university to host a dialogue and debate about important topics of our day,” he said.
“OK,” I responded. “Now tell me how you really feel.”
“No, I’m very serious,” he re-asserted. “This is not a place for just drinking one brand of Kool-Aid and everyone believing the same thing. This is a place for young people to not only have their idea systems formed but also challenged. I think it’s very healthy.”
After that, Dunn’s warm feelings about the role of a university didn’t stop him from steering our conversation toward a critique of “Food, Inc.” He said the film’s basic premise is that modern food production “produces unhealthy food, is inhumane to animals, is inefficient and harms the environment.”
On all four points, Dunn offered counter-arguments. Since he apparently won’t get to debate Schlosser, I’ll share his comments here.
• Unhealthy food: From a safety perspective, instances of foodborne illnesses have actually decreased dramatically over the past 15 years, Dunn said.
From a nutritional perspective, he acknowledged there are problems in the American diet, but he asserted that Americans have more healthy food options available in their grocery stores than ever before. It’s not the fault of American farmers or ranchers that Americans make bad choices, he said.
• Inhumane to animals: While there are always bad actors, Dunn said, most livestock producers treat their animals well.
“It is in the best interest of all producers of livestock to treat their animals very well, and there’s actually a disincentive against treating them poorly, because production drops and the meat is unacceptable,” Dunn said.
He added that many animal activists want something more than just humane treatment. Oftentimes, he alleged, that position is a cover for their desire to eliminate the production of animals for food.
• Inefficiency: The percentage of disposable income that families in America spend on food today has dropped to less than 10 percent, compared to more than 20 percent in the 1950s, Dunn said, which he argued is a sign of great efficiency in the foodproduction system.
He also cited efficiency gains in the dairy industry, which allow dairies to produce 4.5 times more milk than they did during the 1940s with 21 percent fewer animals, 23 percent less feed, 35 percent less water and 10 percent less land.
• Harms the environment: Soil organic carbon levels have increased over the past 20 years, according to a study at SDSU that Dunn cited and called an indication of environmental health.
“We do much more with less energy, less water and less land than any time in the history of man,” Dunn said.
Following his four-point critique of “Food, Inc.,” I described the argument between the agribusiness industry and anti-agribusiness intellectuals as a war of opposing worldviews.
“What,” I asked Dunn, “is at stake in that war?”
“Starvation,” he answered forcefully, predicting that the world would have “three times as many starving people” without the advances of modern production agriculture.
Like Dunn, I am a product of cattle and corn country. My views are no doubt colored by my experience.
Nevertheless, I sometimes get concerned about pesticides in my food and the way some animal slaughterhouses operate. I recognize validity in some of the points made by Pollan and Schlosser and their ilk. But I also wonder how the world’s nearly 7 billion people could possibly be fed without production agriculture.
All-natural, all-local food systems are great, but can they meet the world’s food needs? Dunn said such notions are “ridiculous.”
Still, he plans to attend Schlosser’s speech, to listen respectfully, and to continue producing graduates and research geared toward feeding the world’s burgeoning population.
“I take it as a challenge of the job that I’m proud to take on,” Dunn said of “Food, Inc.” “But I don’t think it helps as we fight for research dollars to feed another 5 billion people. I don't think it helps us at all in the use of those very precious resources for education and research.
“It portrays what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished in the land-grant system very badly.”