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I usually like Matt Petryni’s columns. I don’t always agree with the guy, but he usually seems genuinely thoughtful and I’d put him at the top of the list of this year’s otherwise… lackluster opinion roster over at the Emerald. That said, today’s piece, which attempted to link industrial farming with swine flu (or pandemics in general), was all sound and fury (well, sound at least, and only if you were to read it aloud), signifying… nothing in particular.

First off, they have not, to my knowledge, tracked down the swine flu “patient zero”, which means no one has any idea where this particular strain of the virus originated, outside of some general geographic parameters, so I’m not sure that there’s any particular evidence linking this outbreak to industrial farming. The link between H5N1 (avian flu) and chicken farms, on the other hand, is stronger, but he only mentions it in passing.

Perhaps it will turn out that H1N1 emerged from an industrial pig farm, but to make that claim right now is counterfactual. Furthermore, he entirely leaves out the fact that the deadliest pandemic in modern history, so-called “Spanish Flu” had nothing to do with industrial farming whatsoever.

Second, and more generally, whenever people start going after the “agro-industrial complex”, as it were, I start to wonder what solutions, exactly, they have in mind. Throwing around words like “biodiversity” and “sustainability” is all well and good, but it doesn’t feed people, which is the whole point of factory farms. It’s currently fashionable to “plant a garden” in the back yard (“Oooh look! Michelle Obama has one!”), but in densely-populated urban areas, tiny plots aren’t even close to sufficient to feed the population.

“Buy local” is a lovely mantra when you live in a basically well-to-do provincial backwater like Eugene, but it really isn’t an option in Chicago or Los Angeles. This means that food has to be grown and shipped in from rural areas. And, since everyone* wants cheap food, growers have had to come up with ways to maximize output, which generally entails all of the boogeymen of the “back to the soil!” crowd: industrial farms, genetically modified crops, disconnect from the source of food, and all that. Contrary to what a lot of folks seem to believe, the system we’ve got now is not merely the product of nefarous corporations (Soviet kolkhozy were basically the same thing, only less efficient and reliant on what amounted to forced serf labor), it’s the product of the simple fact that cities need to be fed, and cheaply (“What do we want?” “No war on the poor!” “When do we want it?” “It’s the racist-sexist-LGBT-unfriendly-capitalist-imperialist-industrial complex’s fault we don’t already have it!”).

Some folks on the “John Zerzan” end of the spectrum basically advocate deindustrialization and sometimes even deagriculturalization. This guy just wants us to “[call] on Congress to end to [sic] factory farming in the United States.”** Well, that’s all well and good and would certainly get rid of the factory farms (and, presumably, the pandemics that come with them), but it’d also lead to mass starvation. I’m pretty sure, however, that Matt Petryni isn’t advocating that drastic a “solution.” What’s less clear is what he proposes as an alternative. “Long-term planning”, “biodiversity”, and “understanding [natural] systems… rather than brazenly asserting our superiority over them” are little more than bromides.

People need to be fed, and collectives of mud-caked hippie longbeards simply aren’t up to the task. For all their failings, factory farms are.

Finally, there was this bit:

There really is no current or historic parallel for a hog farm in human society

Yes. Correct. Full stop? Alas, no.

…but if there were, it’d probably lie somewhere between a 19th-century slave ship and a 20th-century shanty town.

The crucial difference, of course is that both a 19th Century slave ship and a 20th Century shanty town are full of human beings. Pig farms are full of pigs. Pigs.


* Does anyone else find it curious that the kind of people who go strolling around Market of Choice, with it’s stone floors, classical music, fireplaces, and stocked to overflowing with all sorts of organic, exotic, imported, free-range, sustainable, health-conscious stuff aren’t quite the same sorts who buy their groceries at Wal-Mart or WinCo?

I mean, “organic” is a bourgeoisie status thing, isn’t it? I guess the benighted plebs who shop at Wal-Mart just don’t know what’s good for them. If only they could aspire to emulate their betters.***

** Don’t you think some editor at the Emerald could’ve come up with something better than the nearly identical headlines, “Factory farms feeding pandemics” and “Industrial farming tied to pandemics”?

*** Harrumph.

  1. Matt says:

    Yeah, Michael Pollan is a pretty good writer on the subject. I have read the book, and I recommend people read it to at least consider. This column mostly emerged out of research I was doing on a previous column about composting, and my personal feeling that people were freaking out too much about this one “epidemic” and not dedicating nearly as much attention to what I see as a more problematic background, I guess.

    There is actually significant scientific evidence that organic – especially fresh (and all that means is “killed recently”) – foods can be better for you than processed and “conventional” foods. However, I’ve noticed any discussion about science that is framed in a political context hardly has any hope as legitimate inquiry just because science is by nature inconclusive at most times, and its value to inform a political viewpoint largely relies on the level of skepticism one wishes to apply or the strength of the existing conceptions it might refute. The “debate” about global is a great example of just how absurd this can get, but suffice to say that you can, if you want to, find problems with any scientific conclusions, no matter how meticulously observed.

    It’s for that reason I tend to appeal more to a person’s logic than to asserting some kind of scientific “truth,” as I think those arguments are both more useful and more persuasive. It’s my assertion that it would seem reasonable that a food eaten essentially out of the ground would have more nutritious value or result in fewer health problems than food that’s heavily or repeatedly treated with chemicals. The reason for this is fairly simple: for a pesticide, growth hormone, or herbicide to be effective, it must by definition alter or end the natural behavior of life. While every environmentally-occurring chemical certainly has the potential to do this, our bodies have usually adapted to deal with them over millions of years such that they don’t reguarly threaten us. Other than that, much of my concern is that we understand very little about how chemicals we design to treat our foods affect either our health and our environment, so a degree of trust in nature I think is at least somewhat prudent.

    All that being said, I agree that “cage-free,” “local,” etc. are not particularly meaningful, especially when employed as little more than a marketing strategy. And while I do think a great number of people might use their loyalty to these labels as little more than a self-validation psychology, I also think they’re sourced in good intentions: a consumer demand for innovations by producers to create products that are better for our health and the environment that we can enjoy not just today and tomorrow, but maybe for generations as well.

    I don’t think the arrogant behavior of some – or many – should totally invalidate those concerns. I also don’t think the behavior should be so fundamental as to ignore other legitimate concerns, such as the argument contending “elitism.” But I think it’s too common that all of the labels are lumped together as one “elitist” product and not examined or discussed for their individual merit, resulting in their perception (or reality) as being worthless and ineffective beyond mere self-congratulation. On the other hand, I do believe at least some of the firms producing these products are, in the spirit of capitalism’s propensity for innovation, actually developing ways to use fewer pesticides and add fewer preservatives. Whether that’s actually a “good thing” or not, I guess, is something only time will tell.

  2. Betz says:

    This article is very timely, as I’m just now starting to read “The Omnivore’s Dillemma” … If you haven’t read it, the book examines the world’s (specifically, America’s) freakout over the question “what to eat?” by looking at some of the different ways we produce food, how we obtain the food, and how we make the choices we do. The book’s themes somewhat overlap with the arguments hinted at in this article … Matt, have you read this book or reviewed it in writing this article?

    Also … I too agree that there is some implicit feeling of contempt or superiority by the people that shop at “glorified grocery stores”, but I had always just assumed it was because I am slowly turning into an old crank. I will say that I have not yet seen any credible evidence that suggests that eating organic foods over the long term promotes healthier bodies and longer life-span versus eating “conventional” foods, ,or, their non-organic counterparts. Until I see some hard evidence, preferably backed or supported by the FDA rather than some pseudo-science group, that suggests that organic is better than non, I still think of those labels (“organic”, “cage-free”, “free-range”, “sustainable”, “local”) as just kitschy political labels for shoppers to feel informed/superior/better than those who do not. They are just bumper stickers, designed to make the buyers feel good and to look down at those that are not “one of them”.

    *harumph, harumph*

  3. Vincent says:

    Geog 341 covers a lot of questions related to “sustainability”, overpopulation, “the tragedy of the commons”, the “population bomb”, etc. Based on what I’ve read of yours, I think you might both enjoy and benefit from the class. I think it’s usually offered Fall term.

  4. Matt says:

    Ah damn, that was as long as another column… shit. Oh well.

  5. Matt says:

    Haha, thanks Vincent. I do appreciate your comments, they do seem to come from a well-reasoned place even when I disagree. And as of yet I don’t know if there really is a worthwhile alternative. I’m just open to the idea of thinking about one. And if someone were to find one, it might just be a great opportunity for profit – and should be.

    But all that aside, I too get frustrated with the hoighty-toighty (sp?) liberal elite that thumb their noses at the “lesser people,” or whatever. At least I just find their advocacy really ineffective because it fails to address an obvious counterargument. I usually stop short of dubbing them “ignorant,” though, for failing to recognize the economic realities of the working class they so righteously look down upon. I actually think my main frustration stems not from their ignorance but their superficiality. If they honestly-to-god were not aware that not everyone can afford Organic Carbon-Offset Shade-Grown Coffee, they would merely just need more information, and can’t really be blamed for this judgement “as people.”

    But what really gets me is this attitude that hot dogs and soft drinks or whatever are a kind of absolute evil. This kind of thinking is dangerous, firstly, because as you point out it fails to recognize the obvious realities of hot dogs and soft drinks. I don’t usually mess with first issue for three reasons: many “enviro elitists” actually are informed (and passionate) about the economic realities; second, it still assumes “those people” would buy “better” things if they could afford it, more or less confirming their argument about being “better” although on different grounds; and finally that it still ignores the issue of the long-run realities of so-called cost-efficient production.

    But I think their attitude is really bad because it often represents a disingenuous assertion that they are “better people” because they are “above hot dogs,” when in reality I know that they too DO enjoy hot dogs and soft drinks, and make purchases based on price, just like those notorious “uninformed people.” I think they should admit this, and make their arguments from a position of sincerity rather than false infallibility.

    As for all the Market of Choice-bashing, I don’t know. I will say this: as a “environmentalist” who likes hot dogs, soft drinks, and Disneyland, I often shop there simply because their prices are better than Safeway’s (which is a weird counterintuitive reality, one I’m still trying to figure out). I don’t know if there’s a tremendous amount of scientific proof out there that their product is better for you or not. You have to admit, though, that it is most likely that consuming fewer chemicals intentionally designed to end life might be better for you. I really don’t want to get into a detailed scientific argument here though, because I’m really not qualified to make one. I just will say I’m not going to refute what seems to be compelling evidence based on the fact I dislike some of the personal characteristics of the people who offer it.

    Finally, nope, what is Geog 341? Is it interesting?

  6. Vincent says:

    Incidentally, Matt, have you taken Geography 341 (Population & Environment)? I imagine you might find a lot of gristle to chew on in that class.

  7. Vincent says:

    Well, yeah. Everyone knows conditions in factory farms are crappy. But what’s the alternative? I guess one could, as many have, simply advocate for vegetarianism. That’s a perfectly defensible position, as long as its proponents stick to “advocacy” and refrain from attempting to impose it on an unwilling population.

    Aside from that… I’m not sure what else we can realistically do except prepare ourselves for the likeliest pandemic contingencies.

    As for Wal-Mart, etc. I was just griping about the insufferable bourgeoisie types who look down their noses at the hoi polloi who buy hot dogs and soft drinks at “big corporate stores” without ever stopping for one moment to wonder why the plebs aren’t shopping at more “sustainable” establishments.

    While Market of Choice and Sundance are both fine establishments, they’re both “see and be seen” sorts of places for a certain set that wouldn’t be caught dead buying Velveeta at Wal-Mart and the atmosphere at Market of Choice is definitely marketed to people who want to appear cultured. Likewise, Wal-Mart markets itself to bargain-hunting working families and isn’t quite so concerned with stone floors, fireplaces by the door, and classical music.

    At the risk of making (yet another) sweepingly broad statement, from my vantage point I see Market of Choice targeting a basically liberal/”progressive” demographic that fancies itself the protector of the very working class whose lifestyle it finds so dreadfully common and uncomfortably materialist.

    Of course not everyone who shops at Market of Choice is an effete pseudo-Marxian snob and not every Wal-Mart customer is a lacquerer at Lanz Cabinets, but I think you catch my drift.

    As for “environmental impacts” and “health costs”, I’m not sure there’s any evidence whatsoever that shopping at Market of Choice has any net positive impact on either one of those. Places like Sundance might be able to make an argument on the “environmental” score, but a store like that can only exist when it’s serving a small, self-selected group. There’s simply no way a place like that could survive in its current configuration while doing any major volume of business.

  8. Matt says:

    Also, I’m worried you might be buying into a false dichotomy here that “sustainable agriculture” or “organic agriculture” (admittedly, whatever that means) is always more expensive than your “Wal-Mart agriculture.” In a great many cases this might be true, as part of the method for cutting down costs in the industrial agriculture system is either one of actual efficiency, externalizing them against future soil fertility, or taking advantage of cheap current energy in the form of fossil fuels – a resource that won’t last forever, either.

    However, this isn’t always and doesn’t have to be the case. There are countless examples of how sustainably-produced food can be cheaper, such as growing your own (often the cheapest method of all, though still with overhead in time) and saving on processing and packaging costs. Plus you simply must consider that while Wal-Mart food is cheaper for the consumer at the immediate price point, it may not really generate more consumer surplus long-term, as the consumer might have to pay more for it later on through health costs and environmental impacts.

  9. Matt says:

    Yeah, I wasn’t trying to link swine flu to industrial agriculture as much as discuss how, despite all the hype about the swine flu, there’s rarely an active discussion about the conditions of industrial livestock agriculture which might be exposing us to increasingly dangerous pathogens, and then highlighting that those conditions contrast with the systems of nature which limit that exposure.

    It’s sort of one of arguments about mass delusion such as how people are terrified of flying due to media coverage of plane crashes but totally ignore the fact more people are killed in car accidents (per mile traveled). Or how many people are horrified to walk home alone for fear of being raped by some criminal along the way, while statistics strongly suggest trusted friends might be more likely potential rapists. But those are other stories for other times.

    But I admittedly don’t have a solution, as industrial agriculture has allowed us to feed billions more than ever would have been possible under the pre-industrial system. In this way, I echo your sentiment that “‘biodiversity’ and ‘sustainability’ is all well and good, but it doesn

  10. Vincent says:

    Thanks for the links.

    His mother blamed the virus on a huge pig farm in the neighborhood. Officials have conducted tests at the farm owned by U.S. company Smithfield Foods, and those tests came back negative.

    In other words, they’re pretty sure they know who “patient zero” is, and there doesn’t seem to be any connection to industrial farming except that he lives near a pig farm that has tested clean for the virus.

  11. J says:

    They’ve been talking about “patient zero” on CNN for two days, claiming it’s this one little boy.

    This is what Fox News has to say about it:,2933,518347,00.html

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