AgriTalk interview with TIME Magazine reporter Bryan Walsh

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On Aug. 31, 2009, AgriTalk radio station interviewed TIME magazine writer Bryan Walsh, who penned an article critical of agriculture.

AgriTalk Host Mike Adams: There’s a lot of concern in the ag community about your article “The Real Cost of Cheap Food.” We’ll get into some of the issues and some of the areas that a lot of people are concerned about. First, why did you write this article and why did TIME Magazine want an article like this?

Bryan Walsh: It’s a subject I’ve been interested in for a while and it’s something we’ve been talking about. There’s a lot of discussion on our food system and how to improve it, what are the changes that can be made, there’s some interest from readers in terms of looking at sustainable and organic food and whether it is worthwhile. That was sort of the kickoff point, and it’s a subject people obviously are really interested in.

Adams: Many people in agriculture that I have talked with feel it’s a very one-sided article and several ag groups have told me they wanted to talk with you and offer information and input into the article and at least have their side of this story represented. Why did you not include those comments?

Walsh: I did talk to some people on that side as well. It’s ultimately the story we decided to do and this is the angle we’ve been taking. TIME is to trying to say rather than do a story where you do 50% on one side and 50% on another, you allow the writer to look at it and make some of his own judgments, that’s why the story came out in many ways the way it does. Coming from my perspective, it was the information I saw and I thought this is the angle I’d like to take.

Adams: Then, it comes off as an opinion piece and you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but many see it coming out in TIME Magazine as a news vehicle and they get the perception of it as a news story rather than an opinion piece.

Walsh: I can see why that could be. That is something we can look at as well. I think if you look at the way the magazine has changed over the last several years, we’re getting a lot of stories that are more angled toward the point of view of the writer and there’s plusses and minuses to that in many ways. On the one hand, we’ve found that we want to be part of a conversation and to be in front of the conversation means not just recording one perspective and another, just going back and forth like that, but saying this is what we can bring to the story and this is what we think and then we start off this conversation that hopefully goes forward.

Adams: If a writer at TIME Magazine wanted to write an article just the opposite of what you wrote, talking about the many benefits and improvements and the things going on in conventional agriculture food production today, would that article be a cover story for TIME Magazine?

Walsh: I think it could be and I know there is a lot going on there. I know the story sort of is pushing this idea of a different system, alternative systems, what some people say is more sustainable, but I know there is a lot going on in conventional agriculture and I hope to look to that in the future. I was just talking to cotton farmers who were working on an interesting crop that will enable you to produce cotton that is non-toxic for people to eat which could have a huge impact on world hunger. There is a lot going on there and I think it will be something we’ll visit in the future as well.

Adams: Throughout your article you talk about your concerns with conventional agriculture and food production and you very much promote or highlight organic production. Do you really think we can feed the people of this country and the people of this world with organic production systems?

Walsh: Studies I’ve seen indicate that is possible that you would need a lot of more human labor on farms. We haven’t really tried it. We have to think about what are the outcomes or what are the unexpected outcomes of the system as we have now? We have to think about what will happen in the future when the price of oil goes back up like we saw a year or year-and-half-ago when oil was up over $150. People I’ve talked to indicate that it is going to continue to rise when the recession is over. Will the system we have now be able to continue going on if oil costs 2, 3, 4-times more than it costs now?

Adams: I have said many times I have no problem with people who want to produce food organically and if people want to buy it and pay more for it, that’s fine. But here is no scientific evidence or credible evidence I have seen that shows organic has been proven to be any better than the conventional food that we produce in this country. So why promote one over the other?

Walsh:   I think be cause we look at organic food and organic is such a wide variety, now we’re seeing that it started off as something quite small, small scale and now you are seeing rather large companies getting involved in organic, too. As they get involved, you’re going to see a “scales up” there and it’s probably for the best, but it’s not so much that it’s necessarily better for you although some people do believe that, and some believe it tastes better, but also that it’s, I think, the long-term user on the land from what I’ve seen.

Adams: Let’s talk about that. You talk about sustainability and you kind of make the point that production agriculture, conventional agriculture, is not, although there are a lot of studies out there showing soil loss is down significantly, energy use on the farm is down, emissions are down, land use is down, we’re producing more on less land all the time. But you are very critical on the system that is doing so much with so little it seems.

Walsh: I think it can be continued to be improved. Ultimately I don’t know if we’re ever really going to see a huge shift to organic or a huge shift to smaller scale, but I do think we can try to continue to do more to reduce those impacts as much as possible. I know organic gets a lot of the focus certainly, but I actually have a lot of hope in the ability to use biotech and by that create seeds and crops that actually will require a lot less water, fertilizer and that is going to be important going forward as well.

Adams: Which is being done, but I don’t really see that being featured in your article.

Walsh: There’s a limit to how much you can put in there one time and I decided to go with the angle we had. I am literally working and interested in finding more out about that. Hopefully a system where you can combine both, maybe using better crops that didn’t need pesticides as much so you could use more organic methods. In the long run having less impact on the land.

Adams: But do you understand peoples’ concerns, farmers’ concerns, family farmers’ concerns, about this article and the perceptions and the way it is taken by consumers across this country as well as around the world? You are not just criticizing or targeting big corporate farms if you will, but many family farms are affected by an article like this.

Walsh: I understand that. I am sorry it has been taken that way because in no way would I want it to be anti-farmer or anti-food. The whole point in a large sense is let’s pay more attention to our food system and let’s not just let it be out there. Let’s give more help to farmers, family farmers, and put more focus on hat. I feel like one of the problems with the system as it is today is it’s sort of a result of the health problems I talk about, we don’t think enough about trying to get more healthy food to consumers, and for consumers themselves to take more care in the food they get. It’s what I wish some people would take out of it.

Adams:  You are very critical of the livestock industry in your article as well. Do you really think that meat is the reason we have an obesity problem in this country?

Walsh: I think it’s one reason that’s part of a general overeating that goes across the board. You can also put in Coca-Cola, all soda, snacks, things like that, fries, the whole sort of fast food lifestyle which is one part of it as well. I’ve been getting letters from people from the environmental community asking me how I could possibly write a story where supposedly I’m talking about sustainability and I go into detail about a beef farmer. That is not the case. Putting it as part of a diet and thinking about better quality and that will have to include more fruits and vegetables as well.

Adams: I want to combine a lot of the livestock issues you brought up. You were very critical about the large scale pork production, the manure, the lagoon pits, also about the use of antibiotics on confined animals, even though the other side of that is there are very few spills from these lagoons, these manure pits, a lot of that manure is used for fertilizer so you have to use less fertilizer, and you can use natural fertilizer by using the manure. Many of the animals, when they are in confinement, the antibiotics keep them healthier; they are not subject to parasites, predators and things like that outdoors. What I’m saying is there is a whole other side of this not portrayed in your article.

Walsh: In terms of the antibiotic issue, Congress was debating a bill that would limit the use of antibiotics in animals for growth promotion and feed efficiency. The FDA came out in support of that idea of trying to phase it out. They do have real concerns about the long-term public health ramifications for people when antibiotics are used in that way. Not that you shouldn’t be able to use them to actually help sick animals, the idea of helping for growth promotion or feed efficiency, I think, it is problematic in the long term.

Adams: But yet if you talk to veterinarians, the people who are on the line, the professionals in that field, their associations were not supportive of that.

Walsh: That is one of the many sides of a big issue where you’ll find people on both sides in that case. There is some from the beef industry saying they are on the other side from that story, but I’m concerned about what this means to human beings, and that is the FDA’s role, to look at that. The switch with this new administration and the fact that they have come out in support of that is notable.

Adams: In fact, one statistic I saw since 2001, less than ½ of 1% of pork farms have had a spill of their lagoon manure system. These systems are highly regulated and have to meet many criteria and specifications. That wasn’t noted in the article.

Walsh: You also have people who live near by these and even without spills, it’s hardly pleasant to have that much manure concentrated in one place. I know the industry does work to make sure you don’t have those spills, don’t have those accidents, at the same time for people who live near them there is a real concern for quality of life.

Adams:   A lot of the pits are being put under barns and controlling the odor and things like that. I guess my point is there’s a whole other story but that you chose your particular angle and now it shapes the perception that many people have about agriculture and food production in this country, without them hearing or seeing the other side of the story.

Walsh: This is what we chose to do and I feel that as a story we found our angle and I looked at what I thought made sense or what I thought offered long-term for improving the system. It’s again something that we do, put it out there, start the conversation and go forward from there.

Adams:   Was this angle more sensationalized than taking the other approach?

Walsh: No, I don’t think so, I don’t think that is the case.

Adams: You don’t think this help TIME sell more magazines?

Walsh: I don’t know if it helps TIME Magazines sell more magazines; I’m sure given the fact there was a lot of criticisms from the other side it has a negative impact as well.

Adams: We’re out of time and we hope to see the other side of this story in TIME Magazine sometime in the future and I know a lot of ag groups would like to help you write that story.

Walsh: Thanks very much and thanks for having me on.

To listen to the podcast, click here.



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