A cornfield is shrouded in mist at sunrise in rural Springfield, Neb.
(Nati Harnik/AP)
September 17, 2013

American Farmers Say They Feed The World, But Do They?

When critics of industrial agriculture complain that today's food production is too big and too dependent on pesticides, that it damages the environment and delivers mediocre food, there's a line that farmers offer in response: We're feeding the world.

It's high-tech agriculture's claim to the moral high ground. Farmers say they farm the way they do to produce food as efficiently as possible to feed the world.

Charlie Arnot, a former public relations executive for food and farming companies, now CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, says it's more than just a debating point. "U.S. farmers have a tremendous sense of pride in the fact that they've been able to help feed the world," he says.

That phrase showed up, for instance, a few weeks ago at a big farm convention in Decatur, Ill. The seed and chemical company DuPont set up a wall with a question printed at the top in big capital letters: "How are you making a difference to feed the world?"

The company invited people to answer that question, and thousands of them did. They wrote things like "raising cattle," "growing corn and beans," "plant as much as possible."

Kip Tom, who grows corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of Indiana farmland, says he's very aware of the fact that the world has more and more people, demanding more food. Yet there are fewer and fewer farmers, "and it's the duty of those of us who are left in the business, us family farmers, to help feed that world."

That means growing more food per acre, he says, which requires new and better technology: genetically engineered seed, for instance, or pesticides.

And this is why the words "feed the world" grate on the nerves of people who believe that large-scale, technology-driven agriculture is bad for the environment and often bad for people.

Margaret Mellon, a scientist with the environmental advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, recently wrote an essay in which she confessed to developing an allergy to that phrase. "If there's a controversy, the show-stopper is supposed to be, 'We have to use pesticides, or we won't be able to feed the world!' " she says.

Mellon says it's time to set that idea aside. It doesn't answer the concerns that people have about modern agriculture — and it's not even true.

American-style farming doesn't really grow food for hungry people, she says. Forty percent of the biggest crop — corn — goes into fuel for cars. Most of the second-biggest crop — soybeans — is fed to animals.

Growing more grain isn't the solution to hunger anyway, she says. If you're really trying to solve that problem, there's a long list of other steps that are much more important. "We need to empower women; we need to raise incomes; we need infrastructure in the developing world; we need the ability to get food to market without spoiling."

It seemed that this dispute needed a referee. So I called Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell University who studies international agriculture and poverty.

"They're both right," he said, chuckling. "Sometimes the opposite of a truth isn't a falsehood, but another truth, right?"

It's true, he says, that bigger harvests in the U.S. tend to make food more affordable around the world, and "lower food prices are a good thing for poor people."

For instance, Chinese pigs are growing fat on cheap soybean meal grown by farmers in the U.S. and Brazil, and that's one reason why hundreds of millions of people in China are eating much better than a generation ago. They can afford to buy pork. So American farmers who grow soybeans are justified in saying that they help feed the world.

But Mellon is right, too, Barrett says. The big crops that American farmers send abroad don't provide the vitamins and minerals that billions of people need most. So if the U.S. exports lots of corn, driving down the cost of cornmeal, "it induces poor families to buy lots of cornmeal, and to buy less in the way of leafy green vegetables, or milk," that have the key nutrients. In this case, you're feeding the world, but not solving the nutrition problems.

Arnot, from the Center for Food Integrity, recently did a survey, asking consumers whether they think the U.S. even has a responsibility to provide food to the rest of the world. Only 13 percent of these consumers strongly agreed.

In focus groups, many people said that if feeding the world means more industrial-scale farming, they're not comfortable with it.

This is not a message farmers like to hear. "It is a real sense of frustration for farmers that 'feeding the world' is no longer a message that resonates with the American public," Arnot says.

He tells farm groups that they'll have to find another message. They'll need to show that the way they grow food is consistent with the values of American consumers.


Chipotle Mexican Grill launched The Scarecrow, an arcade-style adventure game for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
(Business Wire)
September 13, 2013

Taking Down Big Food Is The Name Of Chipotle's New Game

Chipotle Mexican Grill prides itself on the fact that it serves only "responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken."

That means the meat it buys comes from animals raised outside or in comfy pens, who are never given antibiotics and are fed an additive-free, vegetarian diet.

Sourcing that meat is getting harder as the chain has expanded to more than 1,500 stores. But the strategy of marketing itself as a fast food alternative to Big Food has clearly worked well for Chipotle.

Now Chipotle is betting that it can sell even more burritos by lambasting the Big Food companies that drug animals in the name of profit. That's the message of a new short film and game the company launched Thursday that takes a cue from advocacy films like The Meatrix.

As the short film, The Scarecrow, opens, we see a spindly scarecrow entering the monolithic factory of "Crow Foods Incorporated," where conveyor belts ferry boxes of "100% Beef-ish" and eggs and chicken dubiously labeled "all-natural." Through the cracks of a factory wall, the scarecrow spies chickens being injected with growth promoters. Inside a sky-scraping tower, he finds cows trapped in boxes staring blankly as they're pumped with something.

The soundtrack for this dystopian scene is Fiona Apple crooning the song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.



The dejected scarecrow rides home on the subway, and sees an ad and then a billboard for "farm fresh" Crow Foods "feeding the world" as pernicious robotic crows flutter around.

But this scarecrow is a proactive fellow. Rather than eating this shameful food, he goes out to the garden and picks a bright red pepper (subtle, Chipotle). We see him cooking in his small kitchen, and then presto! Our sad little scarecrow has become a happy little street food vendor, selling fresh tacos out of red plastic baskets that look quite a lot like what you'll get at the Mexican chain.

Chipotle's gleaming, super-efficient stores and revenue of over $800 million are more Big Food than taco stand. (McDonalds was even an investor for a spell.) But the chain seems to want to show solidarity with the emerging class of entrepreneurial artisans making food from scratch. We're the good guys, fighting the bad guys, it whispers.

The film, created in partnership with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios, is meant "to help people better understand the difference between processed food and the real thing," says Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle, in a statement.

It's also a teaser for the game, which is available for free on iPhone and iPad, and is all about taking down Crow Foods. According to Chipotle, the game encourages players to "tilt and tap your way through four unique worlds to protect vulnerable veggies, rescue caged animals, and bring fresh food to the citizens of Plenty, all while dodging the menacing Crowbots." Players who earn enough "stars" get a buy-one, get-one-free offer redeemable at Chipotle store.

The game is, of course, fictional, and doesn't name any of the livestock producers that cage animals and pump them with growth promoters and antibiotics in real life. But the aspiration is clear: Chipotle and its customers are coming for you, Big Food.

September 03, 2013

Old Barn At University Of Illinois Getting New Life

The University of Illinois plans to build a solar-energy farm where a century-old barn now stands. But the barn will live on in a new location.

The barn was built in the early 1900s on what used to be the Cruse family farm in Savoy. It will be moved to Congerville. Savoy is just south of Champaign while Congerville is 20 miles northwest of Bloomington.

Morgan Johnston works for university Facilities and Services. She told The News-Gazette in Champaign that a company called Trillium Dell Timberworks of Knoxville will be paid $55,000 to take the barn down.

The company says a buyer near Congerville plans to use the old barn for horses.

Cathy Cruse Revere grew up on the farm. She's thrilled it will be used again.

Piglets in a pen on a hog farm
(Jeff Roberson/AP)
August 30, 2013

Antibiotic Use On The Farm: Are We Flying Blind?

There's a heated debate over the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Critics say farmers overuse these drugs; farmers say they don't.

It's hard to resolve the argument, in part because no one knows exactly how farmers use antibiotics. There's no reliable data on how much antibiotic use is intended to make animals grow faster, for instance, compared to treating disease. Many public health experts say the government should collect and publish that information because antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an increasingly urgent problem. But many farm groups are opposed.

James Johnson, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Minnesota, is among those pushing for better data. He faces the problem of drug-resistant bacteria firsthand. When he prescribes antibiotics to patients, he increasingly has to ask himself, "Will this drug even work?"

"Resistance is turning up everywhere, and increasingly involves our first-line, favorite drugs," he says. "Everyone knows that we're in a real crisis situation."

There's no easy way out of the crisis because antibiotics are so valuable. Everybody wants to use them. Yet the more they're used, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to them.

Johnson preaches restraint, using the drugs only when they're clearly necessary. He also says that we need to know much more about how antibiotics are currently being used. "Otherwise, we're sort of flying blind," he says.

"Are we flying blind right now? Or do we have the information we need?" I ask.

"Not at all. I think we're mostly flying blind, at least in the U.S.," Johnson says.

There's no comprehensive source of data on how doctors prescribe antibiotics to people, and there's even less information about drugs that are given to chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle.

That's a big blind spot because antibiotics are commonly used on the farm to treat disease, to prevent disease and to help animals grow faster.

This stream of antibiotics does create drug-resistant bacteria. And people can be exposed to those bacteria through a variety of pathways.

It's set off a fierce debate over how much this contributes to the overall problem of drug-resistant infections. Morgan Scott, a researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, is trying to arrive at an answer. "As a researcher, it's a very intriguing area," he says. "But it's also frustrating because the data are really not there."

The only solid numbers on antibiotic use on the farm come from the Food and Drug Administration. Every year, the FDA lists the total quantity of antibiotics sold for use in farm animals, divided up by major drug class.

But Scott says those overall totals don't tell him what he'd like to know. "At the moment, we really can't identify whether certain uses of antibiotics are more or less risky than others," he says.

He'd love to know the patterns of antibiotic use — which drugs are used on each kind of animal, for what purpose, nationwide. If scientists tracked this over many years, they might be able to see which patterns of use create more drug-resistant bacteria.

There is a country that does collect this information. Denmark has led the world in efforts to control antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. Every year it publishes a big volume of numbers — and Scott can't get enough of them. "Diving into these data, and visiting Denmark, is kind of like Disneyland for those of us who like big data," he says.

There are lots of people who want something similar for farms in the United States. They include public health experts, but also activist groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Congress is considering a bill that would force the FDA to collect this data and publish it.

But pharmaceutical companies and agricultural groups don't like that idea. They don't believe antibiotic use in animals is causing much of a problem for human health. They also don't think that detailed national statistics would even be useful.

"The amount of antibiotic used does not correlate to the potential public health threat," says Ron Phillips, a spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents companies that sell veterinary drugs.

According to Phillips, if you really want to figure out which agricultural practices produce drug-resistant bacteria, you should study them up-close. Look at a few individual farms, examining what drugs are used and how bacteria adapt.

But don't create a national data collection system, he says. It would be a waste of money, and the numbers would just be misused by advocacy groups that are campaigning to restrict the use of antibiotics by farmers. "The widespread quotes that you see about how much is used in animal medicine, as opposed to human medicine — those are meant to scare people, not to inform people," he says.

One the other hand, Scott thinks better numbers could actually mean less suspicion and fear. Many people want to know exactly what meat producers are doing, he says. When they can't find the information they want, they're inclined to assume the worst.


soil drought
(Robert Ray/AP)
August 27, 2013

Report: Farmers Could Do More To Protect Soil From Drought

Farmers across the country received more than $17 billion in federal crop insurance payouts after last year’s drought. A report released Tuesday by an environmental group blames farmers for not doing enough to shield the soil against the heat.

According to The Natural Resources Defense Council, farmers could have greatly reduced losses if they had been working to improve soil health. The NRDC suggests that planting certain grasses and legumes and implementing a set of soil conservation practices could nearly drought-proof fields. That would save farmers a lot of headache and taxpayers a lot of money.

Many farmers, though, are not exactly sold on the report’s findings.

Doug Wilson is a farmer in Livingston County Illinois, which had the highest crop insurance payout in the nation. Wilson said it would have been hard for those practices to fend off last year’s extreme heat and dryness. He paraphrased former President Dwight Eisenhower when reacting to the report.

“It’s a lot easier to farm with a pencil from a thousand miles away than it is to actually have your hand on the plow,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, Illinois officials are kicking off a three-year project aimed at encouraging farmers to plant environmentally friendly cover crops as part of an effort to boost sustainable farming around the state.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture says the demonstration involves planting certain crops such as grasses and legumes in fields after the regular growing season. Sometimes the seeds are even planted before a crop is harvested. The cover crops reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farm fields, which in turn improve water and soil quality.

Officials say the project will begin this fall when 14 highly visible corn and soybean fields are seeded with cover crops. The fields were selected because they're along interstates or state highways.

Each plot will be accompanied by a sign with the project's website: covercrops.illinois.gov.

farm progress show in Decatur
(Seth Perlman/AP)
August 22, 2013

Decatur Farm Expo Scraps Field Demonstrations

This year's Farm Progress Show will be missing a key ingredient: field demonstrations.

The Herald & Review reports summer's unseasonably cool weather delayed corn that was planted for the show in mid-May. That means that there won't be demonstrations showing how the latest equipment performs at harvest.

Thousands of people attend the event, which is billed as the nation's largest outdoor farm show. They follow the machinery to judge how it performs in the field.

Marc Padrutt is one of the host farmers. He says he's disappointed, but realizes that harvesting the demo crop early won't offer a realistic demonstration.

Organizers say the 60-year-old event has had to cancel field demonstrations before because of wet conditions, but never because the crop wasn't ready.

The show starts Tuesday in Decatur.

Two hens walk in a backyard in Urbana, where residents are allowed to raise chickens.
(Sean Powers/WILL)
August 19, 2013

Champaign Writing Rules For Backyard Chickens

More communities are allowing residents to raise backyard chickens. Champaign recently gave the initial OK for its residents to do that, but city leaders must first come up with an ordinance for chicken owners to follow.

The city does not have to look far to see how other communities regulate backyard chickens. Jill Miller of Urbana raises hens for egg production, and she has grown attached to her birds.

“They do have a calming effect,” Miller said. “There’s something about watching them wander around the yard. Find a moth, chase after the moth, or someone finds a worm and then it’s a big chase cause everybody wants that worm. It’s fun.”

Miller has even named her birds, “Blair is the smartest one; Tootie is like the sweet one; and Natalie is bossy.”

Jill Miller of Urbana feeds her bird. She has been raising hens for the last few years for their eggs.

Jill Miller of Urbana feeds her bird. She has been raising hens for the last few years for their eggs. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Urbana resident Karl Schoeps lives about a mile from Miller. His next door neighbor is raising hens, and he said he has put up with odor problems, and birds winding up in the middle of the street or in his yard.

“I mean they’re beautiful,” Schoeps said. “But I like them on the farm, on the grill, or in the pot.”

On a recent morning, Schoeps looked over his fence to his neighbor’s yard.

“So, you can see what the yard look like – a real mess,” he noted. “And it smells.”

All of the problems Schoeps said, have hurt the value of his home.

Over in Champaign, Martin and Angie Wolske say backyard chickens are the next logical step in urban agriculture. The Wolskes grew about 300 pounds of produce last year. They hope the Champaign ordinance allows them to use chicken manure in their compost pile. They also want to put the birds to work.

“When we’re out doing work in the garden, we’ll be able to put up fencing and have them just run through the raised beds,” Martin explained. “So that they can actually be doing a light tilling of it, eating up the weed seeds that already had landed, catching little bits of insects that are starting to come up, and so they’ll actually help us with the gardening.”

“You can give chickens like egg scraps and meat scraps, and they’ll take care of all of that,” Angie added. “That won’t be in my garbage can, so that’s important to me.”

Martin Wolske looks at a pear growing in his front yard. He and his wife live in southwest Champaign, and they are anxiously waiting for the city to allow residents to keep backyard chickens.

Martin Wolske looks at a pear growing in his front yard. He and his wife live in southwest Champaign, and they are anxiously waiting for the city to allow residents to keep backyard chickens. (Sean Powers/WILL)

But before that can happen, the city has to come up with the rules.

Champaign City Planner Lacey Rains Lowe is working with officials in other city departments to draft the ordinance. They are studying backyard chicken rules in cities like Urbana, Madison, and Seattle. In crafting Champaign’s policy, Lowe is looking at the number of hens allowed, whether to require permits, and the design of coops and fences that are predator poof and meet zoning codes. She’s also reviewing complaints from other communities.

“Generally those are related to noise, which goes back to not permitting roosters, and potential complaints about keeping the chickens contained,” Lowe said.

The city of Urbana relies on an animal control officer when issues come up.

Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth said he has not heard many problems about backyard chickens. The city does not have one policy regulating them, but instead turns to other ordinances dealing with things like animal cruelty, odor, and noise. Still, Smyth said other communities might be better off coming up with a single policy for backyard chickens.

“Our noise ordinance has been beefed up through the years for other reasons,” he said. “We don’t need to have two variations of it or three variations of it when you want to keep your code simple. But if you’re starting out brand new - you don’t have a collection of ordinances – I could see trying to put a lot of things in one ordinance just to make sure you cover all your bases.”

As Champaign drafts its ordinance, Lowe said the city would not restrict certain types of hens, but unlike Urbana, it would definitely ban roosters. She noted it is important Champaign’s ordinance is not too much of a burden on chicken owners and city staff.

“If you write it into the ordinance, is there going to be a staff person to verify that or check on that?” she said. “I can tell you the police are not interested in becoming the Chicken P.D., either. So, we’re really trying to strike a good balance.”

Lowe said she does not know when a final ordinance will be released. Whatever the policy, some Champaign residents still may not be able to have chickens since certain subdivisions in the city do not allow the raising of poultry.


butter cow at illinois state fair
(Seth Perlman/AP)
August 14, 2013

No Extra Security At Illinois State Fair Following Iowa Butter Cow Attack

Organizers of the Illinois State Fair say they're not changing security procedures after vandals threw paint on a butter cow at the state fair in Iowa.

Jeff Squibb is a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

He tells The Pantagraph that a refrigerated case holding the butter bovine is locked all the time in the fair's Dairy Building, while a webcam streams live images of the sculpture.

The 500-pound cow is made with unsalted butter. Built from scratch each year, the butter cow has been an unofficial mascot of the fair since the 1920s.

Animal welfare activists hid in a building at the Iowa State Fair and poured red paint all over the butter cow there. The damage was discovered Sunday morning and quickly repaired.

August 12, 2013

USDA Predicts Corn Crop Will Rebound

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects Indiana corn farmers to rebound from a dismal crop last year by producing nearly 1 billion bushels in 2013.

In its first look at expected harvests this year, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts Indiana farmers will produce about 980 million bushels of corn, compared with fewer than 600 million bushels last year.

The forecast Monday also projects a record national corn crop of 13.8 billion bushels.

Purdue Extension agricultural economist Chris Hurt says the larger crop will mean lower food prices.

USDA expects Indiana soybean growers to produce more than 260 million bushels, up from about 224 million bushels last year.

Page 3 of 11 pages  < 1 2 3 4 5 > Last ›