Commentary: Clueless in college

Published online: Nov 08, 2013
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Want to get a quick exposure to the challenges facing animal agriculture and the allied industries of farming and food processing?

Sit in on a local community college class on nutrition or food systems, as I did yesterday, and listen to the comments from the students in attendance.

The class I attended is called Sustainable Food Systems, and the highlight of the day was a screening of the film "FRESH," a documentary that basically follows the same script-and features many of the same cast of characters-as "Food Inc." For those who haven't seen either documentary, the basic message is as follows:

* "Industrial" farming has created a host of problems, from ecological damage to loss of diversity to depopulation of rural America.

* Commercial livestock production is detrimental to animal welfare, environmental preservation and human health and well-being.

* Federal farm subsidies have resulted in an explosion of "cheap" food that is non-nutritious, unsustainable and the cause of most sickness and disease.

If you've spent more than five minutes listening to consumer advocates or animal rights activists deliver their screed, you've heard these complaints before. They're not new.

The film featured carefully edited scenes of hens scrambling across a sunlit field, of cattle grazing in a meadow lush with springtime clover and a litter of piglets "running free" inside a dirt-floored pen, as an airy, upbeat orchestral score swelled in the background. In contrast, the scenes of conventional farming and livestock handling were deliberately framed to look as bleak and barren as possible, with a soundtrack consisting of bleating animals layered over the growl of diesel engines.

What was far more interesting than listening to the likes of Joel "The Huckster" Salatin and Michael "My Ego Couldn't Fit Inside Grand Central Station" Pollan ramble on about the horrors of modern agriculture, however, were the comments made by students during the discussion period following the screening.

A seminar in ignorance

Of course, the two instructors conducting the class were 100 percent sold on the notion that conventional farming, confinement housing and vertically integrated food production are all spawn of Satan. They railed against fast-food chains, condemned supermarkets and kept up a steady drumbeat of rhetorical questions meant to solicit comments, such as "Why don't they just ban antibiotics in agriculture?"

Asked what they considered the most disturbing image in the film, the consensus was a surprising one. Quite a few of the students (especially women) said they were "revolted" by a scene showing poultry workers spilling a tray full of young broiler chicks onto the sawdust-strewn floor of a growout barn. Yes, it was a little rough-although none of the chicks were injured-but it's tough to imagine that any of the students would perform all that differently if they had several dozen trays to unload.

As the class shared its reaction to the issues discussed in FRESH, the comments were eye-opening:

  • "I can't believe the amount of manure that came from that one (hog) farm."
  • "Farmers using all those antibiotics just creates mega-viruses that get stronger and stronger."
  • "If everyone just bought organic food, then the price would come down to where it's the same as regular food."
  • "It's wrong that chicken companies have a total monopoly on making farmers raise chickens."
  • "The big companies all have so much control over Congress that they never get any pushback when they want to change the laws."
  • "I saw this restaurant where they had meat in a bag and they boiled it. It was gross."
  • "I have a friend who works at Burger King and she told me they keep the grease they use on fries from a month at a time."
  • "If people stopped eating fast-food, that would put an end to cramming cattle into feedlots."
  • "After that movie, I can never eat another egg from a supermarket-ever."

From confusing monopolies with vertical integration to thinking antibiotics affect viruses to assuming that fed cattle end up as fast-food burgers-and knocking sous vide, one of the most benign methods of food preparation-most of the class were truly clueless about our food production, processing and marketing systems in this country. When it comes to how food is produced and processed, the ignorance that abounds among the younger generation(s) is astounding.

But I guarantee that virtually all of them left that classroom feeling "enlightened" about both their politics and their perceptions about the American food system. Many of them will be wolfing down pizzas and burgers later that day, and despite the fact that they're in college to learn, few-if any-will bother researching further the platitudes so blithely tossed out by Pollan, Salatin and others in the film.

The idea that by simply nodding our heads and smugly lining up behind "alternative" producers, consumers can flip a switch and drastically shift the dynamics of food production, without regard for labor costs (and availability), land use, access to capital and marketing constraints is the height of delusion.

Don't get me wrong: I agree with a lot of the ideas spotlighted in FRESH. We need to address the loss of agricultural diversity. We need to expand alternative markets and niche products if the next generation of farmers is to gain access to the profession. And we certainly need to restructure federal farm support to promote those goals, instead of focusing almost exclusively on commodity crops.

But if a college education is supposed to turn adolescents into intelligent, perceptive adults capable of understanding of complex issues beyond mere platitudes and talking points, the class session I attended would have to be graded F.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.