Monday, May 14, 2012

Healthy Animals Means Healthy Food...and Healthy Discussion

I was recently passed a commentary piece produced by CAST, the Center for Agricultural Science and Technology. In it, the organization discusses the "direct relationship between animal health and safety outcomes".  It spends a significant section talking about how diseased animals can pass on pathogens to consumers through the slaughter process, and how animals which appear healthy on the outside can actually be full of disease vectors.  The upshot of the article is that animals raised outside, without antibiotics and in less "controlled" circumstances will be less safe and more dangerous to the consumer.

I was asked to weigh in on this organization, and this commentary for an online magazine article. Frankly, it was an awkward request.  I work with farmers on a daily basis who believe that they are doing their best to raise the healthiest and the highest quality animals for their consumers, consumers whom they often know personally.  That said, not every day is sunny and picturesque on a grass-based farm.  At the same time, I have personally visited confinement farms considered within the industry to be very well run.  The point is, despite everyone's best efforts, no system is perfect.  Without much exception, all sides of this issue would agree that healthy animals mean healthy food.  In the bigger picture, we need healthy soils which lead to healthy animals which lead to healthy people and a healthy planet.

Deep issues require discussion and reflection.
The thing made me feel awkward about commenting on the CAST publication was that I don't like to play small local ag and big ag against one another.  While I most often find myself on the side of the small agricultural operations both because they tend to be the farms that I best understand and the farms one is most likely to find in Vermont, I also need to acknowledge that there's a lot to learn from big farms.  "Big Ag" has spent a lot of time and money on the issues of food safety, animal housing, disease and transportation.  They are incredibly well organized.  Can we not learn from them?  Must we reject everything about them because we disagree with their perspective?  Must they do the same with us, when we have learned so much about animal behavior, consumer relationships and beneficial management of the environment?

At the same time, I question the logic from CAST that small organic or grass-based farms are unsafe.  I was serious when I noted in the article that their view is "reductionist", because that's actually the nature of hard, laboratory science.  It must be reductionist in order to tease out small differences that approach the ability to reject a null hypothesis (in the world of double negatives, this is almost like saying you accept your actual hypothesis).  That sort of focus on individual parts reduced down to comparable attributes is incredibly difficult in the real world.  In applied science, whether performed by a University Extension researcher or a farmer with test plots, there are many, many variables. 

On the farm and in the field, we must think holistically.  Everything on a farm is some variation of managed risk, whether that means we use two strands of fence or four; invest in a tractor or an ATV; plant ryegrass or corn.  We must balance whether a new farm enterprise is worth taking extra time away from the kids' Little League games. 

This blog post may seem to ramble a bit, but I think that's my ultimate point.  It's not fair to ask for a two-second sound bite on deep issues like animal health or food safety.  These are much larger conversations.  And I do mean conversations or discussions.  I don't mean ignorance or dismissal.  We all must learn from one another.  We all have something to teach. 


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