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Economic Sense

RSS By: Matt Bogard, AgWeb.com

Matt's primary interest is in the biotech industry and ag policy.

Big Fat America or Big Fat Facade ?

Jan 12, 2010

By: Matt Bogard

At first I thought that Forbes was emulating TIME magazine with more point of view journalism targeting agriculture and family farms. However, to Forbes credit, this was located on the 'opinion' tab if you go to the website.

Big Fat America - link


Even so, here are some of the outlandish statements I found in the piece:

Archer Daniels Midland ( ADM - news - people ), the self-professed "super market to the world" is the behemoth buyer of farm products that's been influential in the development of factory farms.

It is true that Archer Daniels Midland has played a huge role in modernizing the agriculture supply chain. But the results of this have been mainly positive if you consider that modern agriculture is more sustainable and has a lower carbon footprint than ever in history! It appears the attempt here is imagery. The author is unable to cite anything negative negative about ADM that is substantiated other than using the adjective 'Factory Farm.' The term factory farm is not defined, and I guess is assumed to be understood by the readers as just a bad thing associated with big agribusiness like ADM. I often find that when one evokes the term 'Factory Farm', it is just like profanity- strong words used in place of better reasoning. Other cases I've seen this sort of shibboleth is in the attempt to appear to be pro family farm while stealthily advocating polices that would be detrimental to all producers.

The documentary Food Inc. makes the compelling case that factory farming spreads disease among cattle, hogs and birds and that diseases are spreading to crops like peanuts and spinach.

It is true that Food Inc. makes these outrageous claims, but it is a novelty film, not a scientific report. No evidence is given to grant that the case made by Food Inc is compelling in the sense of being convincing. Emotionally appealing? Yes. Again with the use of the term 'Factory Farm.'

Is organic beef healthier than beef from a factory farm? There's no doubt. Cows aren't supposed to eat corn, but factory farmers feed it to them to fatten them up fast, so by definition a corn-fed cow is going to produce fattier meat than a grass-fed one. The corn causes bacteria to grow in the cow's digestive equipment, which is why the cows need all the darned antibiotics. Cows get fed corn because corn is cheap, and corn is cheap because it's subsidized. Dropping those subsidies might raise the price of corn feed, so that letting cattle wander and graze could become an appealing choice again.

Again, the author again applies the label 'Factory Farm' to what are mainly family farms that either finish their own cattle corn or sell calves to feedlots where corn is fed. As I mentioned when criticizing similar junk science last summer in TIME magazine, what matters is of the antimicrobials given to animals, what % actually target pathogens that affect humans. Resistance requires selection pressure, and if the majority of antimicrobials used in livestock production are not selecting against deadly pathogens, then the risks are overblown. What we have observed is that in countries where food grade antimicrobials used in livestock production have been more heavily regulated or banned, the resulting increase in livestock illness has lead to an increased use of antibiotics actually used in human medicine. And just like the case with the TIME article, the environmental benefits of growth enhancing pharmaceuticals are never mentioned. Pound-for-pound, beef produced with grains and growth hormones produces 40% less greenhouse gas emissions and saves two-thirds more land for nature compared to organic grass-fed beef.

Also, high-fructose corn syrup isn't sugar, so there's no way that the two are nutritionally identical unless the phrase "nutritionally" is meaningless. If the government subsidies are pulled, food makers might turn back to sugar land, since it's more expensive, they might even use less of it.'

It is true, high fructose corn syrup is not the same as table sugar in some practical terms. I can spoon table sugar directly into my coffee, but I don't think anyone does this with liquified HFCS. The author makes a similarly pale distinction and leaves us with the conclusion that this is bad, again without evidence. In fact, nutritionally, the two are very similar in terms of their content of glucose and fructose.  High Fructose corn syrup, in the highest formulation used in most foods and beverages is 55% fructose. The author doesn't bother to mention that the alternative that they propose, table sugar is 50% fructose! Most recent research indicates that the effects of sugar sweetened beverages ( mostly sweetened with HFCS) have no statistical link to obesity.

The idea that eliminating subsidies would be a good way to combat obesity is purley speculative and again is contradicted by evidence, as I've cited before from UC Davis:

'The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather,it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar, and encouraged the replacement of sugar with alternative caloric sweeteners...Given that consumers generally show limited responses to retail food price changes, eliminating the corn subsidy would reduce corn-based food consumption by at most 0.2 percent."

Finally, the author concludes by proposing that we need more labeling. For what? The purpose of labeling is to warn consumers of potential dangers. There is no evidence indicating any potential dangers from GM foods, and the organic market clearly establishes their brands as being GMO free ( losing out on the environmental benefits of biotech). But, no need for labels.


References:

Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A., Bauman, D. E. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2009; 87 (6): 2160 DOI: 10.2527/jas.2009-1781


International Journal of Food Microbiology
Volume 120, Issue 3, 15 December 2007, Pages 296-302

The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production
By Alex Avery and Dennis Avery, Hudson Institute, Centre for Global Food Issues.

Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27573
Adolescent beverage habits and changes in weight over time:
findings from Project EAT1–3
Michelle S Vanselow, Mark A Pereira, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, and Susan K Raatz

Nutrition July-August 2007, Volume 23, Issues 7-8, Pages 557-563
"Is sugar-sweetened beverage consumption associated with increased fatness in children?"

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COMMENTS (2 Comments)

Anonymous
It's tough to argue with results seen on shows like Dr. Oz. And on a personal note - My family of 9 adults and 5 children went on a "vegan" meal plan. All adults had a decrease in blood pressure and chlorestoral levels - significant ones...
Average weight loss per person was 15 pounds. It's unfortunate though... Only 6 of us are remaining on the diet... Oh well, the others will come around in time.
4:05 PM Jan 13th
 
Fomer Ag Teacher
I hope the author of this article mailed it to the editors at Forbes.
8:18 PM Jan 12th
 
 
 
 
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