Friday, April 8, 2011

Bitten hands that feed...

Communication and mutual understanding tumble easily into the wide chasm between the 2% who produce food and fiber in this country and the other 98% of Americans. People usually fear most what they don’t understand and aren’t familiar with.

Furthermore, consequences induced by the great Ag vs. Non-Ag Sector divide have led to misfortune and lowered morale for many agricultural producers. The few that bear responsibility for feeding the many also bear an unequal share of legislation, public scrutiny, and law enforcement, while city dwellers often get let off the hook. When it’s rural political power vs. urban political power, majority rules.
      A Share of Legislation 
      California, Proposition 2 passed in 2008. The law, which will go into full effect in 2015, decrees that laying hens must have enough room in their cages to fully stretch their wings, lie down, and turn in a circle. That sounded good to 63% of California voters (ironic: 63% of Americans are pet owners…i.e., if they owned chickens, they’d probably carry them around everywhere and paint their toenails, too…wait, like I DID!). No one thought one more step ahead to wonder:
  1. Why it could have made sense to house hens in that way (see comments and Hard to Swallow)
  2. How the birds laying the inevitable $2/dozen egg imports would be treated
  3. How many struggling families may have to forgo eating eggs because of higher costs
  4. The gargantuan start-up costs for those wanting to remain in or enter the business 
…and what we have now is a massive outsourcing of food, i.e., a national security issue. Schwarzenegger pledged that any imported eggs would also be made according to Prop 2. Really? Where’s the egg in the McMuffin coming from, and will it be on the Dollar Menu? 

A Share of Law Enforcement
So, a city-dweller would never expect the EPA to issue a fine for exceeding a bacterial Total Maximum Daily Load  because your dog is using the backyard as a toilet and it’s entering the drainpipe when you turn the sprinklers on. An example of urban bacterial sources are as follows: 38% waterfowl; 26% humans + pets; wildlife 24%; rats 11%. Sometimes pets can contribute as much as 40% of the bacteria. Ugh, and you can also compare total bacterial output by source.

If a rural-dweller owns livestock, however, even though livestock bacteria only make up 22% of the total bacteria in a waterway, that person is held accountable. An example of rural bacterial sources are as follows: Pets, 8%; Septic leaks, 11%; non avian wildlife, 29%; avian wildlife, 7%; cattle, 22%; unknown, 10%; avian livestock, 1%; other non avian livestock, 12% (data courtesy of Dr. Redmon and Mr. Wagner, TAMU) Better keep a close eye on those ducks, people.  

And can you believe it, the EPA wants to regulate dust production on agricultural property? They can, since 2% of the population is relatively easy to regulate.

A Share of Public Scrutiny:
It is also curious that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (6%) receive more attention than electricity generation (76%), transportation (11%), and manufacturing (4%). Or, with regards to methane production, cattle always come up in conversation, even though these are the statistics: natural swamps (26%), rice paddies (20%), fermentation by cattle and other livestock (15%) oil, gas, coal leaks (14%), biomass combustion (10%), landfills (7%), and animal waste (3%; Heilig et al., 1994, Houghton et al., 1990, as cited in Wahlen et al., 1993)

Is agriculture getting a fair share of legislation, enforcement, and scrutiny? What do you Think?


  1. This is so interesting, Cassie. Here is my question. When Prop2 "decree[d]" that laying hens must have enough room in their cages to fully stretch their wings, lie down, and turn in a circle" why did that necessarily lead to the list you provide below? Why the (seemingly obvious, according to your post) jump to importation of eggs? Why can't farmers just be humane to the chickens? Help an urban soul. p.s. What do you think the CAUSE is of the over-regulation of farming/etc. Simply that majority rules? (i.e. there are only 2% of them and more of us?) Or, does it reveal some deeper-seated psychosis about food, or is it a product of the foodie "hype" like you discuss in other areas?

    1. Why it could have made sense to house hens in that way
    2. Where their eggs would come from
    3. How the birds laying the imported eggs would be treated
    4. How much more money eggs would cost

  2. Thanks for your questions, Becky! The website for the American Veterinary Medical Association's Welfare Implications of Laying Hen Housing is, where they list the benefits and disadvantages to different housing systems. The $1.50/dz eggs that many families choose to buy are coming from systems that cage birds in the minimum amount of space that allows for the maximum amount of production. Animals will not grow, milk, or produce eggs if stressed, so the system seems to be providing an environment low enough in stress for them to be as productive as they are. Conventional cages are set up to facilitate feeding, cleaning, and egg collection, prevent the spread of disease, and prevent nesting aggression, food contamination and spillage, and fecal contamination. Also, when chickens spook randomly at a rat, a loud noise, an airplane, a ghost (ok, sorry about the 4th, but chickens are...chickens), cages keep the birds from freakishly piling into corners and suffocating one another. The $1.50/dz eggs come from systems that make efficient use of space, labor, energy, and feed, while reducing hen morbidity. Families that go to a CA grocery store looking for eggs at that price will not be buying CA eggs, they will be coming from another state (reduced CA egg revenues) or another country (existence or implementation of feed and care regulation?). If there is no other option than the $3.50 cage-free/free-range eggs, poorer families may not buy eggs at all, limiting their ability to cook/bake meals at home and further exacerbating a protein deficit in our poorer citizenry. I hope this answers the first part of your questions, I'll get to the "p.s." section later. Thanks again!

  3. Great post. Keep it up! Here is a good link comparing the environmental impacts of organic production compared to conventional production.

    Seems that it is actually worse for the environment to produce these foods organically than conventionally.

  4. Becky,

    I'll attempt to explain possible answers to your question, but I will not offer an answer because I don't think there is--at least I don't know--a simple answer to "why is farming over-regulated?". Majority rules, a deeper-seated psychosis about food, and foodie "hype" may all play respective parts in it.
    The post states the consequences of 98% of a nation being disconnected from agriculture. The media have raked in a great following by playing on the general public's misunderstanding and have generated fears that keep 'em coming back to for more "answers". I see danger in the over-reliance of non-agriculturalists on the media to become informed as to where food comes from and why it is produced as it is. Food, Think! is about using concrete evidence to think for ourselves and not letting the media--or anyone--make conclusions for us.

    With regards to regulation, I'll state this also, I do agree with James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary". Accountability is necessary simply because error (think product recalls) and wrongdoing exist. Remember, unsafe food, animal cruelty, and environmental harm are unacceptable to consumers and producers alike.

    Of course, people don't always operate by "the right thing to do" in any industry, but they all respond to economic and/or penal incentives. If there is a penal incentive but not an economic incentive to comply with regulation, people leave the industry. This is the case with CA egg farmers, many of whom cannot afford to demolish and reconstruct their hen houses. I do want to be clear, it truly seems no harm was done to hens that were able to be as productive as they were in their Pre-Proposition 2 situation. These farmers may have been doing something right but were getting punished anyway.

    The unfair regulation discussed in the post has been levied without understanding or appreciation of the sort of voluntary self-accountability and free market-driven accountability that is practiced in agriculture. A great example is portrayed by the beef industry's (voluntary self accountability) Beef Quality Assurance program, which trains producers in the best practices of cattle care to provide low stress environments that foster very low incidence of injury and illness. At this point, membership and compliance with BQA is not mandatory within the industry, but most cattlemen would agree that BQA certification for all beef producers will be made mandatory by the beef industry. Of course, this is also indirectly economically driven (free-market driven accountability), since these practices result in a better beef product. However, agriculturalists say if you don't take care of your plants, your animals, and your land, they won't take care of you. They know doing "the right thing" is economical at the same time.

    It is counterproductive and unsustainable to "Bite the hand that feeds us". My hope for this blog is to have worlds collide and understanding forged between urban and rural worlds.

  5. Aaron,
    Thanks for posting that website! I encourage everyone to visit it.