Quittin’ TIME

Published on: 14:27PM Aug 26, 2009

If you’ve been by the magazine stand at your local supermarket or library, you’ll note that one of the nation’s major weekly magazines has as this week’s cover story a blistering attack on conventional agriculture.  [And I see fellow AgWeb blogger Matt Bogard has beat me to the punch, but as most fighters know, a 1-2 combination is most effective].

The Aug. 21st issue of Time magazine is entitled “the Real Cost of Cheap Food.”   What’s mostly notable about the piece is how predictable and derivative it truly is.  There is not a single new fact or assertion in the article that hasn’t long been trotted out by the various anti- activists.  You know the ones:  Anti-large farms, anti-antibiotic use, anti-carnivores, anti-change. In reading through the article, I kept waiting for something really provocative to appear, but in truth, it read like a college newspaper article.  By that I mean that the author didn’t really sift his facts or consider whether the source of them was pushing their own agenda.  He just threw them all in the article, because (in ironic comparison to the article itself, which says that too much cheap food leads to obesity) stuffing all those criticisms in one story makes for a very fattening diatribe.

Examples of falsehoods?  The first page talks about the carbon footprint of the U.S. livestock sector.  It said that 19% of fossil fuels go to animal agriculture.  That is a ludicrous assertion, and apparently is based on the well-known and well-refuted United Nations report which found that globally, livestock production produces 18% of all greenhouse gases.  In the U.S., that figure is more like 6%, precisely because farming and ranching here is more efficient and productive than subsistence-level production in the third world. 

Another familiar if misleading trope in the piece was that a return to local, subsistence-style farming is going to be more environmentally friendly.  Sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense.  In dairy, since the end of WW II, we’ve gone from 20 million cows to 9 million.  Does Time really think that putting a few milk cows on every farm, and then trucking a can of milk a day to the local creamery, is really going to reduce the carbon footprint and improve the environmentalism of milk production?  That’s nutty.

Now, the sad truth is that Time, which used to be the newsweekly of record for decades, has, like most of its brethren, succumbed to a loss of readership from the internet, and the general decline in advertising.  So it and Newsweek both are now more opinionated, and a lot less factual, or at least, certainly less objective.  That’s fine, if not very enlightening.  The reporter had an agenda he wanted to promote, and he didn’t let any contrary notions or balance slow him down.  Good luck with that as a business model.

I also want to single out the coincidental appearance this month of a very different perspective on modern agriculture, this one from someone who actually appears to have visited farms and knows what he’s saying.

The American Enterprise Institute’s journal had this insightful article in their July 30th issue, called The Omnivore’s Delusion.  It’s really a point by point rebuttal of the notion, promoted by the likes of Michael Pollan and subscribed to by Time magazine, that the romantic dream of the backyard yeoman farmer is one society should strive for in the future.  Author Blake Hurst correctly asserts that consumers who profess shock and horror at the use of production efficiencies in farming are the same who have few qualms about using similar approaches in other aspects of their lives, from cell phones and laptops, to microwaves and Viagra.  What’s good for the goose is obviously not good for the gander, in the minds of some.

The food business has its challenges, just like journalism today, but it is responsive to consumer expectations and it is held accountable for its practices.  It would be great if the same could be said for Time magazine.