Monday, February 25, 2008

Review of the "Omnivores Dilemna"

During my trip to South America I brought Michael Pollan's The Omnivores's Dilemna. It is supposed to be a moral meditation on food, agriculture, and the environment. The author investigates the origins and implications of four meals:

1. A McDonald's fast food meal
2. A homemade meal made entirely of organically grown ingredients
3. A small farmer pasture-fed meal of uber-organic ingredients from Polyface farms
4. A hunted-gathered meal from the "wilds" of California

The first part of the book exposes the industrial and factory origins of fast food and organic food alike. By far this is the best part of the book. He purchases a steer from a feed lot and goes to visit the feed lot as well as a disgruntled corn farmer.

Frankly, there is nothing appetizing about feed lots. The cows are crammed in together with little to no room and there is a "lagoon" of fermenting urine and manure to complete the odorous landscape. So much corn is grown in the U.S. to support this industry as well as the hog farms where they are just as crammed together in specialized barns with slatted floors so that the thousands of pounds of pig waste can flow into their huge lagoons prior to spreading on local fields. Chicken production is also just as industrialized. Workers have to wear special breathing apparati to go on the lower level and if the fans stop working the whole house full of chickens dies from the fermenting waste below them. So many animals are crammed together that the feed is doped with antibiotics and strict biocontrol measures are used to keep the herds healthy.

Organic farms have similar conditions, just organic certified feed and no antibiotics. In my opinion they are just as bad, although they try harder to be environmentally friendly.

Farms like POlyface remind me of my Aunt Sandra's place in Texas or the Amish family that I buy pork from. They have an integrated approach to agriculture that relies on pasture, rotation, a mix of species, and agressive management. They definitely seem like an idealic yeah even pastoral solution to the environmental problems posed by traditional agriculture.

The last section about the hunted gathered meal is just annoying because it seems like it is crescendoing to be some great solution, when to me it seems the least sustainable. How many of us own woods where there are wild boar and mushrooms? How much time was spent? How much environmental damage would there be for Los Angeles to decide they are all going to eat gourmet pork and mushrooms every day?

The problem though unrecognised by the Omnivores Dilemna is outlined in the first chapters. The average farm supports ~180 people. That means 179 people don't have to actually work growing their own food. It magically appears in the grocery store and the rest of us are free to be accountants, bank managers, computer programmers, and artists. The guy left on the farm is left with the ever daunting task to remain commercially viable. Food price increases rarely reach the farmer in the field and so the average farmer is forced to do whatever possible to increase yields and productivity. More acres are needed. Less time is available to spend moving cattle daily to new pastures. Cows need to be milked by the thousands every day. Mechanization, fertilization, specialization and industrialization of agriculture didn't happen because that is how the farmers wanted to do it. There is no conspiracy. They just wanted to survive.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Brazilian popcorn fields

Regularly people will ask me what is it that I do. When I tell them that I am a plant breeder, I usually get a blank look. When I tell them I am a geneticist at a popcorn company they just look confused, especially when my international trips come up. I go at least once a year to South America - Brazil and Argentina.

This is what I do: I look at the popcorn, that is really it. We have 50 hybrids that we test each year in South America and when we go we look at all the commercial hybrids to see what problems they may have in farmers fields. Then we look at the experimental hybrids to see how they compare for yield, pests, diseases, plant type. Then we talk about them with customers and collaborators to get their opinions about the new hybrids as well as needs in future hybrids.

It is a pretty great job, it's not rocket science, but it never stays the same. There is always a new disease and new problem. Keeping up in yield with the competition is a challenge as well as remembering pedigrees, relationships, and performance of all of the different hybrids and testing material each year.

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Emily's mad

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Chicken Killer

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Don't cry for me Argentina

I made it to argentina! Two delayed flights later. Two windstorms and an overbooked flight.

I have my blackberry and I will put some pics up. It is such a change from Indiana winters.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Name that dog

I have wanted a dog since we had to give Boss the dog back this summer. My chicken raising has been thwarted by attack after attack of racoons, opossums, and coyotes.

A dog seemed like the answer to the problem. A really big dog. Leila hasn't been as eager because dogs take more time, training, and are just more trouble than cats. Boss was an exceptional dog whose only bad habit was chasing skunks.

Well, we now have a dog. She doesn't have a name still. We went to the shelter and looked at a St Bernard-lab mix that we liked. A few days later I came home and there was a st bernard-lab mix dog sitting in front of the front door. But this was a stray, not the dog from the shelter. We are keeping her!