How far back to ag basics do we go? (commentary)

How far back to ag basics do we go? (commentary)

WAY back in 1977, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson sang "Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas," and get "back to the basics of love," a song lamenting the modern era of everything bigger and more competitive -- but not necessarily better.

It seems to me that many folks today are bemoaning modern agricultural practices as being "bigger and more competitive," but not necessarily better, and want to go back to the basics.

I guess they mean back to no concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), no antibiotic use in the animal industry except to treat diseases, no feed additives to increase weight gain, no "hormone" use to maintain high lactation levels, no confinements to protect piglets from alpha female sows, no biotechnology products, etc.

However, does going back to the basics mean no selective breeding to reduce lameness in hogs, increased milk production in cows and resistance to inclement weather in crops?

Does going back to the basics eliminate climate-controlled living conditions, vaccinations to reduce diseases like brucellosis and calculated feed rations to maximize growth?

How far back do the animal rights groups really want to go? Surely not back to the pre-Rural Electrification Act?

I have previously outlined the many advancements that have promoted larger hogs for market, but today, I want to take a broader look at agriculture's efforts to feed not just Americans but the developing world.

If we assume that going back to the basics of agriculture means going back to the 1930s, just before the Dust Bowl changed agricultural practices forever and before CAFOs and antibiotics were ever heard of, we can get a good look at the effect the changes have had since then.

I am told that, in 1930, one farmer fed 10 people. Today, one farmer feeds 155 people.

In 1930, 25% of disposable income in the U.S. was spent on food. Today, we spend approximately 10% on food.

In 1930, the U.S. had 123 million citizens and exported almost zero agricultural products. Today, the U.S. population exceeds 300 million, yet we can annually export agricultural products worth millions of dollars.

The dressed weight of hog carcasses has increased by 35 lb. in the last 35 years.

One dairy cow today produces as much milk as five cows did in the 1940s.

If we go back to the "good old days" when all cattle were grass fed, the U.S. would need an increase in pastureland equal to the size of Montana and New York.

The International Journal of Food Microbiology recently accepted a manuscript (not yet published) describing a study in Denmark that compared conventional indoor-raised broilers to organic outdoor-raised broilers for contamination with campylobacter.

Not only did the organic broilers have a higher rate of carcass contamination with campylobacter -- 54% versus 20% for conventional -- but the length of time it took for birds to consume enough feed and water to get to market weight was nearly twice that of the conventionally raised broilers.

Mars does not seem to have the geological and climatic conditions that would allow us to expand agricultural production efforts there. So, if we go back to the basics, as some are calling for, we had better hope that another planet is more suitable for raising crops and animals because that is the only way I can see the ever-growing population on this planet we call Earth getting fed.

Waylon Jennings also sang another of my favorites back in the day: "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys"; instead, "let them be doctors and lawyers and such."

My Granddads were "cowboys." My son and I are "doctors and such." This world needs both.

The cowboys need to continue to embrace advances in technology that will help them feed the world, and those who decry modern farming practices need to go to bed hungry for a week and then reconsider their position.

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a medical doctor by training and a former undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Volume:85 Issue:09

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