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News and analysis on the global poultry
and animal feed industries.
on July 6, 2009

Attacks on modern agriculture versus feeding the world

Washington update from the National Chicken Council.

Critics of production agriculture are on a roll. The system that has brought safe, varied, abundant, and affordable food to consumers in the U.S. and around the world is being attacked. Advocates of local, small-scale, “sustainable” production are riding high. You’d never guess that these systems could not possibly feed a hungry world.

The critics are pressing their attacks through blogs, magazines, books, movies, and the mainstream media, and have sympathizers in high places in the new Administration in Washington. Environmental protection, animal welfare, world trade, and many other topics that concern our industry could be affected by their activities, and not in a good way.

Unverified H1N1 accusations

For example, critics were quick to seize on the springtime outbreak of H1N1 human influenza that originated in Mexico. Various activist blogs and writers immediately linked the disease to the existence of large hog farms in the state of Veracruz that are partly owned by Smithfield Foods, the U.S.-based producer. Without a shred of evidence, they suggested that the human disease was caused by the hog farms – another example, they said, of the evils of concentrated animal production.

Wrong. Turns out that the pigs tested negative for the virus, and the people who got sick never had contact with the pigs. H1N1 is known to be a human type of influenza in any case. No pigs were needed.

Fortunately, this year’s H1N1 turned out to be a rather mild form of influenza as long as medical care was sought at an early stage. Apparently the disease was worse in Mexico (with more than 60 fatalities) because medical care is less available than in the U.S. We should all be grateful that Mexico took strong action to break the chain of transmission by shutting down public events for several days.

The attack of modern agriculture

On a broader level, the critics are attacking the mainstream food industry at its core, questioning the very concept of large-scale production. A leading theorist is Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which has been on the New York Times hardback or paperback bestseller list for three years.  He’s critical of “factory farms” and modern agriculture. One of his heroes is Joel Salatin, who operates a farm in Virginia on traditional principles. Both Pollan and Salatin are featured in a new documentary movie, “Food, Inc.,” which fires broadsides against corn production, genetically modified seeds, fast food, and meat and poultry processing companies, among other targets.

45 million acres

It’s all well and good to think that this country could subsist on little local farms. But consider the Joel Salatin model. He practices “pastured poultry.” He uses 50 portable wooden pens that hold about 70 chickens each, and his helpers move them ten feet each day – by hand -- to a new patch of grass, for the 56 days it takes to grow them out. The idea is that the chickens nibble on grass and eat insects (although they still get commercial feed), and their manure fertilizes the pasture.

Fine. But he produces only 10,000 broilers a year on 100 acres, in flocks of 3,500 birds. If we tried to produce nine billion birds per year in that fashion, we would need 45 million acres! That’s more than all the farmland in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas – combined. There is absolutely no way that much land would be available, not to speak of the labor involved in moving the pens. If tractors were used, the “carbon footprint” would be enormous.

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