Big Ag? GMOs? Antibiotics? I need “Food Science for Dummies.”

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Understanding food science research is confusing.

And depressing.

I do want to get to an actual meal for this One Hundred Meals project. But we need to start with some information first. We need neutral information before we launch. Homework first, then the test.

So, my fellow activist Ellen and I have given ourselves this task of understanding and respecting the viewpoint of big, industrial farmers. Check.

One topic comes to the fore which seems pivotal to understanding—research. We ask our new Big Ag friends, for example, what they think of the recent FDA decision to reduce antibiotic use in livestock. The response is both from the gut and experience (which we honor and respect) as well as to cite organizations and research they trust – FDA, USDA, land-grant university studies.

If I’m doing my job right, I hear them out and guess what? I get that if that were the body of knowledge I had always known and was the bulk of what I’d heard for years, and I was in the business of earning a living following those principles—sure enough, I’d reach the same conclusions the Big Ag folks have reached. I would be comfortable with the current antibiotic use in animals. I would be comfortable with GMOs in our food system. So there you go—I can understand and respect Big Ag (Agvocates*) where they stand.

Turning it around, I hope they feel the same.

So are we done?

Well, if we were, contention about our food system would not exist. So, no.

Now imagine this. In my effort to internalize and understand Agvocates’ viewpoint (kinda like running a second operating system on your computer!) I read a bunch of literature and research coming from their “camp.” As I do, I’m careful to note who funded the literature, what the biases are. And there are lots and lots of biases.

But here’s the thing: When I turn the mirror inward, I see, sure enough, that you find biases and questionable funding of “my” literature also.


That is where my brain is right now. Stuck. Ellen, for her part, is just getting depressed.

And it gets worse: There is no arbiter for this.

You’d like for it to be the FDA and the USDA, because that’s actually supposed to be their purpose for existing. But recently, if you’re following along, you’ll know that the FDA is just now getting around to acting on its findings from 35 years ago. And they’re only doing so because a judge forced them to. So I am hard-pressed to trust the FDA as the reliable arbiter of truth we’re looking for on these tricky questions!

Look, I do not come from a long history of conspiracy theory, but the more I research, the more I start to sound like such a person.

In some weird way, I’m starting to distrust that a research duel will help us. I may find some research I trust. I’m not saying I can’t find that, but I am not sure pitting one body of research against another will lead us anywhere because even if the greater percentage of society or a government agency like the FDA finally chooses one body of evidence over another, does that matter? Will it lead to anything when the “other side” is still going to stay entrenched in their beliefs regardless?

If you’d like to disagree with all this gloominess, then answer one of these two simple questions:

  • If you currently disagree with antibiotic use in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?
  • If you currently agree with the use of antibiotics in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?

They’re rhetorical questions.

I will say, even being confused and depressed is better than not thinking about our food at all.

And Ellen and I are certainly thinking about things! We’re getting familiar with all the entities and interests on the Agvocate side of things. We’re learning the acronyms like GRAS, FOIA and CSPI. We’re learning how to spot influence and bias (ProTip: follow the money, which is often only barely hidden by a public service-style organization with a clever name). We’re reading the data from the Farm Bill. All in the hopes of having some solid background information before we start.

We’ve been busy brainstorming a starter list of Meals We Hope To Eat and we’ve posted them here for you to look over.

And we hope, soon, to sit down and eat with someone so we can get this show on the road!

*Agvocates — for the sake of clarity, from here on out, we’ll refer to Big Ag folks as Agvocates, which is what they are calling themselves these days. We’ll call the other side — the sustainable, local, Slow Food side — Agripreneurs.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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Grant Kessler

Grant grew up a picky eater, surviving on peanut butter until a year spent living abroad in high school expanded his food interests. Okay, mussels were still weird, but the emergency stash of peanut butter went largely unused. With his growing love of food and cooking, he became a freelance food photographer based in Chicago, working with chefs in the top restaurants. For years he chased their styles in his own cooking, creating elaborate meals at home and for friends. But as he became exposed to produce from farmers markets and the thinking behind buying local, in-season foods, without packages and from people with names, he realized simpler is better. Grant knows exactly where 95% of what he eats comes from, how it grew, how it was raised and by whom. His blog MyFoodshed delves into local food, backyard gardening and more and he hopes to learn more about the complex food system via his One Hundred Meals project. You can follow Grant on twitter at @OneHundredMeals and @GrantKessler and find One Hundred Meals on facebook.

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anonymous Nov 1, 2012 12:18pm

[…] start giving them antibiotics, because as soon as you give them corn, you’ve disturbed their digestion, and they’re […]

anonymous Oct 10, 2012 7:06pm

154818 524915Depending on yourself to make the decisions can actually be upsetting and frustrating. It takes years to build confidence. Frankly it takes a lot more than just happening to happen. 459594

anonymous Sep 25, 2012 1:57pm

[…] […]

anonymous Aug 20, 2012 11:51am

[…] So if we thought that picking up items produced by seemingly independent organic food producers constituted ‘fighting the good fight’, we need to think again. […]

anonymous Aug 10, 2012 9:55am

Re.: article above, I submitted a misspell, please accept, below.

anonymous Aug 10, 2012 9:55am

This article did nothing but raise more questions. Which is a good thing! Criticism aside – hat tip Grant Kessler – I prefer to know from whence my larder stores. However, if something looks really good in the bakery department I don't stop to figure out if the cow that made the milk in that delicious dairy product my tummy could do without ate some kind of laced grass.

I'm going to simplify it for myself: Eat what you will enjoy, Enjoy what you eat. Be. Very. Mindful.

I'm currently on a macrobiotic diet, just to get my cholesterol down and purify my system, I was eating kosher meat but my stomach didn't digest it well,so now I eat fish, vegetables, legumes, fruit ,whole wheat, rice, rice milk, and enjoy the heck out of it! If you can make your own food you're guaranteed to enjoy it more! That's my choice for now.

I don't offend my Mother by turning down her brisket.

anonymous Aug 9, 2012 4:59pm

[…] a cumulative build after reading and learning so much about what this company/technology and other agro-giants have done, are doing, and plan to do. We simply, as a culture, can not be too busy or uninterested […]

anonymous Aug 9, 2012 6:11am

[…] […]

anonymous Aug 8, 2012 6:18pm

An excellent place to start – at beginner's, or don't know mind, despite naysayers who insist on starting with some 'knowns' epistemologically derived, all too often, from unexamined cultural narratives informed by confirmation bias. Will be very curious to see where this non-dogmatic exploration leads…and actually very good to see a non-dogmatic discussion of the topic – it's all too rare in EJ, which is generally a self-congratulatory echo chamber on the subject.

anonymous Aug 8, 2012 10:13am

Thanks Chip. Although I admit to leaning your direction, it is useful to spend some time with an open mind to hear out the other "side's" arguments and ways of thinking. It is an industrial, profit-driven system, but things are not always black and white. Not exactly research, but take the recent reporting from CBS that cows dying on grass in Texas were dying because they were eating GMO grass. We all leap to the worst (and in this case, false) conclusion. In fact, the grass was not GMO. CBS did a poor job reporting. Now, it gets retracted, but by then the damage in the public's mind is done – one more example of how terrible GMOs are. In this case though, not true. (story:

How many other pieces of "evidence" are out there like that? Misreported and misrepresented to promote an agenda? My feeling is of course that both sides do it. Google any food issue: GMO safety, antibiotic misuse, grass-fed etc and you will find research and study after study to support whichever side you like. That's my problem, my confusion. I'm not a research scientist so my ability to wade through those opposing research docs is, well, poor, but I'm trying to learn how to do it. While learning, I'm trying to keep an open mind. It's hard. I'm leaving the safety of my idealogy for a while (still eating the same!). I may well return, but for now, I'm being open-minded…and it is confusing.

    anonymous Aug 8, 2012 4:58pm

    While keeping an open mind can seem like the path to a better foundation of understanding, I believe it can also lend validity to an issue that isn't worthy of debate. While I agree that we can't continue to demonize those who hold contrary views, we also shouldn't lend credibility to ideas that are outright wrong. You're starting out on a path which you hope will lead to an open dialogue and, ultimately, to compromise that both parties can live with while advancing some form of "good". I think you're finding it "confusing" because you're trying to view things from a position that is absent of any sort of concern for anything other than the individual while you, personally, hold a broader view of how things interact and benefit from that interaction. The confusion is a direct result of trying to empathize with a view that lacks empathy. The whole situation is an oxymoron. I do wish you luck though, and good thoughts.

anonymous Aug 8, 2012 9:26am

Look at the environmental impact of the industry supported by Agvocates vs. Agripreneurs. Likewise, look at the treatment of animals. I really don't understand your confusion. One method offers sustainability, the other offers a complete lack of respect for consumers, the land, and the animals raised. Am I completely missing the point of your article? The only reason for the current overuse of antibiotics is to make industrial farming of livestock viable. On what planet could one look at a feedlot and think, "yeah… this is a sweet system"? Defending production and corporate farms in the name of "protecting jobs and lifestyles" is akin to protecting whalers a hundred years ago when their jobs became obsolete due to advancements in technology and human thinking. Thank god it happened before all the whales became extinct. Honestly, is this even a subject worthy of debate? This is like arguing over climate change, I'm over it already.

    anonymous Aug 8, 2012 9:30am

    It would help if you point out some examples of bias on the Agripreneurs side, because I don't really get what's causing your internal conflict.