Grassley Fires Back At TIME

Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R-IA) made the following statement on the U.S. Senate floor Sept. 29, defending the agriculture industry against a TIME Magazine article he termed “skewed." Grassley noted that the article "practically demonizes production agriculture" and also pointed out that "both organic agriculture and conventional agriculture serve complimentary needs and can co-exist in harmony." 

“I rise today in response to Bryan Walsh’s recent article published on Aug. 31, 2009 in TIME Magazine titled ‘The Real Cost of Cheap Food.’ Unfortunately this is one of the most skewed and one-sided articles I’ve ever had the opportunity to read, particularly in the main stream media. This report was far from objective journalism.

“Before outlining the numerous factual errors the author presents in his article, I will mention that I support organic and sustainable agriculture. In fact, Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and from my home state of Iowa, is credited for creating a sustainable agriculture system decades ago. What Niman Ranch and other organic farmers across Iowa and our nation are doing is to be commended. These producers are providing additional choices to consumers and creating highly profitable small farms which can help sustain rural communities. In fact the National Agriculture Statistics Service reports that in 2007, 566 organic farms were located in Iowa.

“That being said, I am disappointed that an information source, previously known to be a news magazine, has resorted to an inaccurate, incomplete, and unfair reflection of family farmers across the country. I want to take a few minutes here on the Senate floor to refute a few main points that the author has made. First, I want to discuss how our nation’s farmers are stewards of our land, protecting and caring for their livestock and our environment. Secondly, I will address population growth and the growing demands to produce safe and affordable food. And finally, I’ll address how both organic agriculture and conventional agriculture serve complimentary needs and can co-exist in harmony.

“As everyone in this body knows, I’ve been a family farmer all my life. My son Robin and I crop share our land and we’ve taken great pride over the years in both caring for our livestock, and conserving our natural resources while producing a bountiful corn and soybean harvest. We are not unlike tens of thousands of other farmers across Iowa and this country whose livelihoods depend on taking care of our soils, waters, and animals.

“With final passage of the Food Conservation and Energy Act in 2008, also known as the Farm Bill, Congress made one of the largest commitments to conservation that this nation has ever seen. An additional $6 billion in new money was added for working lands programs such as the Conservation Stewardship program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Farmland Protection Program. Even on my own farm we use no-till on our beans, we minimum-till our corn, and we’ve put in a wetland, a waterway, and a grass strip, even though we have mostly flat farmland. Robin and I aren’t required to do this. We do it because we know as stewards of our environment, our farm will benefit in the long run, and we’ll be able to pass the operation down to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“That’s one of the main points the author of the TIME article totally misses. He basically demonizes production agriculture. Mr. Walsh implies that the only family farmers in our country are those who live on 30 acres. But nothing could be further from the truth. Family farmers can operate small farms, but they can also operate large farms. And if given the opportunity they want to be able to pass that farm onto future generations of their family. It makes no sense to imply that these producers would purposefully deplete our resources for a quick buck. There has NEVER been a quick buck in farming. But it can provide over a lifetime, a rewarding and sustainable lifestyle.

“Producers around the United States continue to become more and more efficient in their production practices. As this chart shows, in the last 25 years, we’ve been able to produce more bushels of corn with less fertilizer. Using USDA data compiled by The Fertilizer Institute, nitrogen, phosphate, and potash efficiency are growing in corn production. To put it another way, we are growing more bushels of corn per pound of nutrient applied. This is in direct contradiction to the author’s statements.

“We know that hypoxia is partly a natural phenomenon, but scientists generally agree that nitrates from agriculture and other man-made factors contribute to it. When the hypoxia zone forms, it does displace fish, but it is particularly unfair to try to quantify impacts on the fishing industry because there isn’t sufficient data to back that up.

“Technology has allowed farmers to apply the exact amount of fertilizer in the right way so there isn’t excess. However, even organic farming (which the author seems to hold in high esteem) uses manure for fertilizer which contains nitrogen, and soil naturally contains nitrogen that washes into streams. Farmers have been employing conservation practices like no-till, buffer strips, and wetlands just like I have on my own farm to prevent soil erosion and keep runoff from going directly into waterways for years. And I anticipate these practices to grow.

“In addition, research is starting to shift on hypoxia issues in the Gulf of Mexico. There is increasing recognition that causes of hypoxia relate strongly to man-made alterations of the entire system, including channelization of the Mississippi, reversal of the Atchafalaya River, and extreme loss of wetlands and barrier islands that filter nutrients and protect against storm surges — not solely nutrient issues.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) hypoxia report indicates that 22 percent of nitrogen and 34 percent of phosphorus loads can be attributed to point sources rather than agriculture. In addition, EPA estimates over 2 trillion gallons of untreated combined sewer overflow run into our nations waterways each year and Army Corp of Engineers projects dump millions of yards of nutrient rich soil into the Missouri and other rivers for habitat restoration purposes. These types of dredging projects in the Missouri River floodplain alone may represent as much as 8 percent of the spring total phosphorous discharge.

“Technology in corn production in the United States over the last 100 years has been remarkable. From about 1860-1930 corn averaged about 25 bushels per acre. Not until the 1950’s through the 1980’s when breeders began using double cross and single cross technology did we see advances in corn yields. And just in the last 10 years have we seen the increased use of biotechnology which has provided yields of over 150 bushels per acre. The author clearly views biotechnology as a bad thing, when in fact traits such as drought resistance and nutrient use efficiency is actually improving corn’s performance with less inputs. Many of our technology companies are expecting their yield trends to exceed 300 bushels per acre in the coming years. For someone like me who has been farming 50 years, it’s almost unimaginable, but exciting at the same time.

“In fact, in 1915, 90 million acres of cropland in America was simply used to ‘fuel’ our agricultural production. That’s right — it took 90 million acres of crops just to feed all the horses and mules that provided the work on agricultural lands. If you add up all the land in the United States being used to produce corn, wheat, and soybeans it about 224 billion acres in 2009. So, less than 100 years ago we would have been using nearly half of the acres in the U.S. just to feed our work animals.

“By 2050 it’s estimated that the world population will exceed 9.3 billion people. As world demands for nutrient rich food and protein continue to grow as both income levels and populations grow in developing nations, America’s farmers are ready to answer that call.

“The TIME author attacks animal agriculture throughout the article. His theme is that if the animal doesn’t roam free on the western prairie and eat grass, it simply couldn’t be healthy or safe to eat. Mr. Walsh cites the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production in his analysis of why animals treated with antibiotics produce meat unsafe to eat. However, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) responded to the Pew report with a lengthy report of their own which the author conveniently fails to mention. Perhaps because the AVMA study said ‘A scientific human/animal nexus, connecting antimicrobial treatments in animals with food borne or environmentally contracted human disease, has not been proven.’

“Livestock producers take very seriously their responsibility to provide safe and abundant food to the general public. Dairy, poultry, and livestock farmers have made a voluntary committment to using antibiotics responsibly. By developing responsible-use guidelines, these industries have proactively taken steps to safeguard both human and animal health.

“On issue after issue I’ve worked on my main priority is that the policy decisions we make must be based on sound science, not political ideology. We’ve seen studies that indicate the risk of food-borne bacteria on meat increases when antibiotics that help suppress animal disease are removed actually making our food less safe to eat.

“We only have to turn to our neighbors across the Atlantic to see how a ban on antibiotics has played out. The European Union made a decision to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters over 15 years ago and in 1998 Denmark instituted a full voluntary ban which in 2000 became mandatory.

“After the ban was implemented in 1999, pork producers saw an immediate increase in piglet mortality and post-weaning diarrhea. Dr. Scott Hurd, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety and professor at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, released a study which shows that when pigs have been sick during growth, that they will have a greater presence of food-safety pathogens on their carcasses when slaughtered.

“If this ban had resulted in improvements to public health, suffering consequences like piglet mortality would make sense, but the science does not back that positive improvements in public health has occurred due to the Denmark ban. In fact, the World Health Organization in 2002 released a study on antimicrobial resistance and could find no public health benefit from the Denmark ban.

“It’s true that overall use of antibiotics in Denmark has declined, but there has been a significant increase in the use of therapeutic antibiotics which are used to treat and control disease. I think an interesting statistic is that in 2009 the use of therapeutic antibiotics in Danish pigs is greater than what was used to prevent disease and promote growth prior to the ban in 1999. Not hard to believe if you look at the science, which Mr. Walsh conveniently ignores.

“A 2009 Iowa State University study estimated production costs would rise by $6 per pig in the first year of a prohibition if a similar ban was imposed in the United States as Denmark. Over 10 years the cumulative cost to the U.S. pork industry would exceed $1 billion. This would all be on top of the estimated $4.6 billion U.S. pork producers have lost since September 2007 due to the perfect storm of events in the industry.

“The author also points to recent recalls in nuts, fruits, and vegetables as evidence that conventional agriculture is harmful and unsafe. What Mr. Walsh chooses to ignore is that salmonella and e-coli are naturally occurring organisms that with proper handling, processing, and cooking can be minimized and eliminated. Organic agriculture is not somehow exempt from being affected by these bacteria. In fact, one of the main challenges within our food safety system has been the perpetual underfunding of the Food and Drug Administration. I hope that the Senate will be able to undertake comprehensive food safety reform yet this year and give serious attention to the funding deficiencies at the agency.

“American consumers demand not only a safe and abundant food supply, but also an affordable selection to feed their families nutritious and healthy food. The author fails to recognize that personal choice is part of the equation. While less than 1 percent of agriculture is farmed organically as he points out, a simple economics lesson would tell us that supply and demand are in direct relationship to one another.

“In 2008 Americans spent 9.6 percent of their disposable personal income on food expenditures. This has steadily decreased since the late 1920’s when nearly 24 percent of our income was spent on our diet. Our consumers have demanded an affordable food supply and the agricultural industry has answered that call. Other nations with less developed agricultural industries than the United States spend anywhere from 12 percent to 45 percent of their income on food. At the same time that producers have become more efficient and are providing U.S. consumers with lowering food costs, the farm share being retained by the producer has been decreasing.

“For example, from 2000-2006, the farm value share ranged from 5 percent to 6 percent for cereals and bakery products compared to what is being paid at the retail level. Costs in packaging, processing, and transportation account for most of the cost at the grocery level. Conventional agriculture producers are not getting rich. Instead they are producing the safest, most abundant, most reasonably priced food in the world for our consumers.

“Perhaps the TIME author believes that we should be spending a higher percentage of our income on food. However, because of the financial situation our nation is faced with including families out of work and with lower disposable income, they would be outraged if suddenly their food expenditures skyrocketed. The Economic Research Service at USDA reported that total food expenditures for all food consumed in the U.S. was $1.165 trillion dollars in 2008, a 3.3-percent increase from $1.128 trillion in 2007. Prices are naturally rising because of the higher cost to do business including transportation costs. Do we really think it’s feasible to see these prices go even higher so that the author can further promote his political agenda? Growing all of our food organically will take more land, cost more money to produce, drive prices up, and ultimately make food even less affordable to those in need.

“I appreciate the opportunities that organic agriculture has made possible for farmers in Iowa. It has truly allowed our smallest farmers to flourish and receive a premium for their crops and livestock. It has also promoted gardens and has helped us teach our children where their food comes from. I agree with the author that First Lady Michelle Obama’s and the U.S. Department of Agriculture gardens are bringing more visibility to educating consumers about where their food comes from. I commend them for highlighting important issues relating to our health by eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Organic agricultural and conventional agriculture can co-exist. Both will be driven by demand and both provide important choices for U.S consumers. Some consumers will shop for locally grown foods, others will shop for cost effectiveness in their tight household budgets.

“It’s “time” for TIME Magazine and Mr. Walsh to start being honest with their readers. The next time the magazine wants to run a story that clearly reflects the author’s personal views they should identify as such. I expect the next article that TIME publishes on agriculture to be better researched and present a more balanced view."

(Source: U.S. Senate Office of Sen. Charles Grassley)

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