Commentary: Clueless in college

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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.

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Illinois  |  October, 24, 2013 at 09:17 AM

The root of this misinformation campaign lies with the college instructors -- mostly impractical over-privileged over-sheltered over-paid evangelists with all the easy answers to theatrically hysterical contrived "problems". But why must they attack our successful agriculture, try to ban and regulate proven modern methods out of existence when, if their simple medieval solutions were worth anything, they could simply set up working Renaissance-Faire farms in their own image and promptly compete us all out of business? The back-assward subsistence farming techniques these fools advocate are inadequate even for serious hobbyists, unsustainable except for trust-fund recipients and royalty like Prince Charles. The methods they espouse constitute a colossal waste of time, effort and real estate to produce practically nothing. If their hidden agenda is to produce little or nothing why not simply return to the good old days of government boondoggle set-asides and direct payments to limit food production? It would make about as much sense (none) and would sure save a lot of fruitless stoop labor nurturing diverse weeds and righteous bugs among the scattering of gourds and struggling heirloom tomato plants.

Gary Onan    
University of Wiscoinsin-River Falls  |  October, 24, 2013 at 09:29 AM

I find this rather sad, but not uncommon. I am Chair of the Animal Science Department at our institution and I am in the midst of a controversy here regarding a class taught in our English department which explores human-animal interactions through literature. That is a great topic, but the instructor is totally anti-animal agriculture and presents a largely one-sided viewpoint. Our majors who have taken the course recognize the inaccuracies and out-right lies promulgated by the instructor, but most of the students are just taking it all at face value. I also teach a course called "Sustainable Animal Agriculture". If I were to use the documentary mentioned in this article (and I might), I can assure everyone that the discussion following would take a much different and more thoughtful path.

Nebraska  |  October, 24, 2013 at 09:53 AM

Unfortunately the academicians portrayed here are the same type of individuals who populate Washington D.C. They: -have an agenda, - they are unelected (read: career employees) - they have been in business of training our teachers for generations. (Read "Slouching Towards Gomorrah" Robert Bork)

Oklahoma  |  October, 24, 2013 at 10:48 AM

I worked for USDA for five years and a land grant university for 24. I lived in third world countries for over 5 years. I have spent many hours, teaching, being on panels, and communicating with legislators, students and the general public about the food supply. Many of the observations made in this article are indeed true and I could add a hole litany of misconception that people have of food systems around the globe. I could also provide a litany of fallacies in Pollan's arguments as I have been forced to watch these films too many times. The problems with people's perception of reality is that they come from beliefs that have been formed by supposition and innuendo rather than hard fact. More problematic is that even faced with hard scientific evidence their beliefs are unchanged. The only sure fire method for changing beliefs is to enable people to live as their beliefs dictate - they soon discover the fallacies. I have been taking students to Africa for decades and there, the reality hits and their beliefs topple with respect to agriculture, energy and water. I am a firm advocate for learning by doing - let those with strong conviction put those to practice.

kansas  |  October, 24, 2013 at 02:06 PM

And everyone wonders where our crop of "Low-Information" voters comes from? A truly "liberal" education has been murdered by our Public Education Professionals who now teach students WHAT to Think, not How to Think. Propaganda is what's being offered and a great way to show these students would be to have them watch "Triumph of the Will" & "Birth of a Nation", with no intro or explanation, next to these types of films. Then ask them to compare and contrast their methods of communicating a "belief system" and "message". Even the most ignorant and heavily indoctrinated will immediately, instinctually recognize what they're being "handed" by pop-culture media and its toadies in academe, politics and the press. Thank you Mr. Murphy for taking time to experience first-hand, the abuse our "leaders of tomorrow" receive, at the hands of our Ed Pros, in our Tax Supported "Institutions".

Kentucky  |  October, 24, 2013 at 03:15 PM

I appreciate the points Dan raises in his article and he has done himself and the rest of use a service in acknowledging that some of the issues raised deserve serious consideration. I also am pleased to hear the opinion from Gary who expresses a balanced view that is the NORM in universities. However, some of the other opinions are distressing, if not downright abusive, in their anti-higher education perspective. OF COURSE there are instructors like those cited who are not fully informed or have a strong opinion on the topic, but most are far more measured and thoughtful. That is the purpose of a higher education and most professors try their best to be balanced. To whitewash the entire profession as "liberal" nonsense (as if "liberal" was all we need to say to mean anything) is the height of misinformation and frankly, arrogance. Dialogue is never possible under those views, and if you don't agree with the perspective taught in SOME classes, you have the right to challenge that, as do the students (many of whom do, by the way - don't dismiss an entire generation either). In the case of this particular issue, the best approach is not to dismiss such people as disseminating "propaganda" but to respectfully differ, accept some of their arguments might have merit, and to engage them in a civil conversation. While Dan does so in his actions, the article he writes does inspire overreactions. Too bad, because the issues are far too important to be left to diatribes, by all sides.

Virginia  |  October, 24, 2013 at 04:04 PM

I attend college activities all the time. I am treated well, even though I am old enough to be the grandparent of many of the students. I always speak my mind, often holding to a contrary position. I hope you did the same.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  October, 24, 2013 at 04:09 PM

That is encouraging. "Sustainable" is a very broad term and requires complex explanations. It's not about "organic good, conventional bad," as some (not all) instructors and activists preach. Like a lot of other issues (energy, food production, nutrition, etc.), there's no easy answers, no silver bullet, and certainly no let's blow up the current system and replace it with something (allegedly) more benign.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  October, 24, 2013 at 04:18 PM

Thanks for the kind words, Robert -- at least some of them. If I had had the chance to engage in dialogue with the instructor and/or the students in the class I attended (I deliberately went as an observer), I would have been more diplomatic than I ever am in print. The issues of land use, labor, and market access -- to name a few -- impact the notion of somehow switching wholesale to "alternative" methods of food production. But those are never mentioned in documentaries such as FRESH, unless it's to condemn government, Big Food or corporate farmers. The real culprit in the classroom situation I reported on is not the instructor -- who has strong opinions but is not unintelligent -- but the free reign activists have to produce slanted propaganda that demonizes animal agriculture without ever accurately assessing its benefits, nor honestly confronting the NEW challenges that switching to alternative agriculture would entail. There's your problem.

Funny Farm    
Iowa  |  October, 25, 2013 at 08:09 AM

Taking anything from Robert Bork seriously will make you just as dumb as those college kids.

Iowa  |  October, 25, 2013 at 08:31 AM

Outstanding. So well said. Thank you.

Washingtion  |  October, 25, 2013 at 10:14 AM

Thank you, Dan Murphy, for bridging the college classroom content to this magazine's audience. You have outlined the challenges all of us in animal agriculture face: not only the ag illiteracy of students and instructors, but also, and most likely the root cause, science illiteracy as well. Colleges should be the place where evidence is brought to bear on all issues, open discussion is inherent in learning and dogma is challenged. The instructors are responsible for creating this learning environment and getting their students to find their own answers based on the evidence.

October, 26, 2013 at 11:27 AM

Dan, were you sitting in on Marion Nestle's class over at NYU? Sounds like it. How does NYU justify housing her among the sciences? It is a shame these so-called professors are permitted to blow off scientific rigor and stoop to evangelizing for the anti-ag industry. Heck, they even sell books for profit, as if their salaries from big universities aren't enough. What a shameful hateful racket. Just sickening.

California  |  October, 31, 2013 at 11:41 AM

I went to college back in the early seventies, back when my father called me a "budding communist". I majored in animal science and biology and many of my professors even back then were extremely liberal and out of touch with reality. Not so much in the school of agriculture but in the liberal arts kind of classes. The good news is that with actual job experience and foreign travel I learned to take a more balanced approach to every thing. I would encourage people to question every thing, and to investigate claims and propaganda no matter who is putting it out there. Question your teachers, politicians, news media, etc.. Find out who is funding organizations that ask for your money and support. Use your brains people!

Les Stephens    
Amity Oregon  |  October, 31, 2013 at 11:51 AM

All of this concern and yet more and more students are signing up for food stamps. It would be interesting to see what goes into their shopping carts. Same for the Professors and instructors. While there is currently a great deal of rhetoric the purchases tell the story. One of the ultimate ironies is that the majority of Organic produce in stores today comes from large farming operations that grow, process, and pack it. The food activist mentality is a lot easier to espouse when you're not hungry.

Illinois  |  November, 01, 2013 at 11:24 AM

Apparently you do not know who Robert Bork is or you would have never made that statement Jen. I think we need an open dialogue and that is sure a sad way of continuing it.

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