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  • The more atheists tell me that pigs have more value than human babies (born or unborn), the more pigs I'm going to eat. Bring on the crates!! We've ...

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  • The "hot air" is the paper by McGee, not in organic farming. Please see the response of IFOAM - Organics International at www.foam.bio.

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  • I just ate a pork chop. Yummy. And i grew up on a farm and we put pigs in crates. Of course they can lie down in there. But lose sows often lie on their ...

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Most recent stories

  • Translating Food Technology: Why do livestock farmers sign away their lives?

    Why do farmers lock themselves into oppressive contracts?

    When Costco Wholesale Inc. announced plans to build a chicken processing plant near Fremont, some in the agriculture industry hailed it as a rare chance to reintroduce some poultry farming back into a state that now accounts for only half of one percent of the nation's production, giving farmers a chance to earn as much as a 7 percent to 8 percent return on investment, according to the company. But critics of the plan were quick to caution potential growers not to trust the company. The Fremont plant's poultry, like 90 percent of all poultry raised in the United States, would not be purchased from farmers on the open market, but instead would be raised by hired farmers tending company-owned birds, using company-supplied feed.

    Under such a system of raising farm animals "under contract," as it's called, "...there is no way that you can tell whether a poultry operation is going to cash flow your loans and make any income,” attorney Lynn Hayes, program director for Minnesota's Farmers Legal Action Group, told a public meeting in West Point.

    But contract farming, in which an independent farmer invests to build barns and then works under contract for a specific production and processing company, has become virtually the only way to raise meat chickens in the U.S. and is also the system under which the majority of U.S. pork is now raised.

    If it's such an oppressive system, why would any farmer trade his independence to work under such a system? Why do farmers do that?

    • Contracting takes risk out of the natural capital-intensity of modern animal agriculture. The cost of feed today accounts for more than 70 percent of the cost to raise a chicken, and since most farmers have moved away from combining cropping operations and livestock raising, most or all of that feed is purchased, not raised on the farm. The purchase price of that feed, subject to floods, freezes and droughts, can fluctuate over the course of a season. Such volatile swings in the commodity markets often force farmers feeding their own animals to either sell early or sharply cut back their herds, as we witnessed Nebraska ranchers doing during this decade's drought. Contract farmers, in contrast, get paid the same regardless of feed prices, while the poultry company absorbs the losses. As a result, according to one study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, contract-production companies remove an estimated 97 percent of the economic risk from growers, compared to independent growers who bear all of that risk on their own.
    • It smooths out cash flow and labor use. Similar to the above, contract-raising animals for a vertically integrated company allows farmers to plan, budget and smooth out income that is naturally volatile and seasonal in the old system of selling farm produce on the open market. In addition, it allows farmers who have other enterprises to better plan their labor use so they neglect neither enterprise.
    • It's simply another form of specialization. Farmers today understand the need for—and value to them—of specialized production. As agriculture grew more competitive in the 20th century, the traditional farmer who used to raise corn, beans, cows, chickens and pigs on the same farm found that his talents, labor and resources were better spent focused on a few commodities, or even a single one. They discovered that being a good cropman didn't make you a good dairyman, and being a good beefman didn't make you a good hogman. So specialization set in, and the mix of enterprises on any given farm shrank. Contracting simply extends that idea beyond species and crop choices. Being a good flock manager doesn't make you a good financial manager, and being a good feed manager doesn't make you a good marketing manager—all of which are necessary to succeed if you are buying, raising and selling your own animals. Contracting lets farmers instead specialize in their focused area of expertise: raising animals efficiently.
    • It may not be ideal, but it often beats the next alternative. In the early days of both poultry and pork contracting, it was often viewed as a temporary fix, something to carry struggling independent farmers through a down market. For most, it didn't turn out that way, locking the majority into the new system for the longterm. But that's not necessarily all bad. As unpleasant as it may be to those who see it as reducing the independence of traditional farmers, the hard truth is it kept many farmers on the farm who otherwise would have gone under. Even today, contract farming provides reliable supplemental income for farmers, most of whom already rely on off-farm income, in order to stay on the farm and in the countryside.

    Like any economic system, contracting has its bad and good. One study, for example, shows it likely did contribute to the demise of many hog farmers in the 1990s, mostly because it spread the market risk that was concentrated on the packing plants across the packer and the hog producer. Another suggests the continuing market concentration of poultry businesses has probably caused small—but economically meaningful, nevertheless—reductions in the compensation growers receive.

    However, a recent USDA research review suggests that despite sharply increased concentration in many U.S. agricultural markets, most research finds it hasn't had much impact on farm prices. Most agricultural processors, the resarchers note, have their own interests to protect, which usually represent large investments that must be protected over the long-run. For that reason, they realize they can't short their producers forever without driving them out of business. Although they may favor one grower over another, it's in their best economic interests to pay enough to keep their favored ones in business to ensure a stable supply of commodities. That increased coordination between producers and processors reduces costs of production and opportunity costs of inputs, moves information about consumer demand up and down the chain more effectively than traditional cash markets and ultimately increases total returns to producers and processors. The integration of the chicken industry and it's contracted pay-for-performance based structure has saved consumers well over $1 trillion since 1980, according to one estimate.

    Listen as these producers explain the benefits of contract feeding in this video supplied by the National Chicken Council.

  • Navigating the New Food Movement: Why farm cruelty videos attract viewers, and why you should care

    Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit "...on the frontlines fighting to protect farmed animals, ...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," put out its latest cinematic drama in late June. The footage, shot this spring by a hired MFA plant pretending to be a farm worker at Washington's Briarwood Farms, a supplier for egg distributor Eggland’s Best, edited together footage of people engaging in questionably cruel behavior with somber and brooding images of caged chickens, artfully gloomy background music and poetically suggestive narration. It all combines to further the group's constant narrative: The system of caged-hen production is unacceptable.

    This June video followed the same model of MFA's past works targeting not only poultry, but also pigs, milk cows, turkeys, veal calves, and even ducks. They all skillfully use isolated depictions of animal cruelty (some real, some implied or staged) by individuals to cinematically indict the wider system of intensive animal production or individual practices like caging hens, keeping pregnant pigs in individual stalls, beak-trimming to prevent cannibalism, or confined housing.

    Their ultimate goal? To name and shame suppliers to large companies, who can then be pressured to announce changes. Those announcements can then, in turn, be used to coerce smaller, less powerful retailers and food producers into submitting. All are designed to make food production more burdensome and more expensive, even as they do little to really improve animal welfare.

    Eggland’s Best's director of quality assurance told Fortune he was skeptical about the authenticity of this latest video. He said MFA contacted Eggland’s Best numerous times prior to publishing the video, promising that if the company publicly committed to cage-free eggs, the group would edit the narration to spin in favor of the company. If not, the story would position Eggland's as cruel and inhumane. “It seems a little bit like this is a set up,” the director said.

    "Following pressure from caring consumers," the video narrator of the final video breathlessly intones, "many of the biggest companies in the world, including McDonalds, Kroger, Walmart and many others, committed to stop cramming hens in cages. But not Eggland's best."

    Meanwhile, the Independent Grocers Alliance, which represents over 1,000 retailers nationwide, joined the growing list of retailers who have caved to the group's pressure, announcing, "It is our goal to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for IGA by 2025 based on available supply. IGA, its retailers and its wholesalers do not tolerate animal abuse of any kind, and we expect our suppliers to adhere to accepted industry standards."

    Although it's understandable to be sympathetic to a retailer who feels they can't win against the public spectacle of a well-financed juggernaut like Mercy for Animals, pushing back against this corporate extortion is critical to the health of the food system in the long run, says lawyer and award winning author, Wesley J. Smith. A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and an expert in bioethics regarding both animals and humans, Smith's A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement tears apart both the tactics of the animal rights movement and its underlying, flawed philosophy.

    "Animal rights activists have very successfully positioned themselves in public society in a way that is false," Smith told us shortly after publication of his book. "Most people think it's about just being nicer to animals, which of course is an important human endeavor. But the purpose of the animal rights movement literally is to end all domesticated animals and put all animal industries out of business."

    MFA's video protestations about poor animal welfare notwithstanding, animal-rights groups like Mercy for Animals aren't really interested in the welfare of animals, beyond how much it furthers their animal-rights mission. In fact, Smith argues, animal-rights activists hate the animal-welfare movement, because it recognizes a moral superiority of humans that gives them dominion to judge welfare by their own standards. "In animal rights dogma," he says, "animals and humans have equivalent moral value. What animal rights activists have done is they have hidden much of their true agenda behind the good reputation of animal welfare."

    Corporations like those that MFA praises in the video which have acquiesed are playing into their strategy, walking a dangerous line by agreeing to standards that science demonstrates have little to do with welfare, but ultimately advance the ideology of animal rights.

    MFA attracts viewership and sympathy by cinematically creating an illusion that animals are human, worthy of equal moral consideration, and then evoking pity for them and outrage on their behalf from the consuming public. Those emotions are then channeled to further the mission of dividing the food chain against itself. They know that when the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal. In fact, consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. But when those animal-rights groups successfully pit consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on, they can pick off otherwise unwinnable targets one by one. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand there's no adequate defense in the middle ground of appeasement.

    Grocers: Where does this all stop, in your opinion? Is this newfound attention to animal cruelty really consumer-driven, or is it artificially created by a small minority? Were you to resist on your consumer's behalf, what support would you like from the farm commodity groups? Farmer Goes to Market will follow up on these questions and more. In the meantime, leave us a comment below or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, send us an email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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  • Foresight on Food Politics: Forget 'GMO.' Now the panic is over 'GEO' foods

    When is biotechnology not GMO? WHen it's GEO

    Passage by both houses of Congress this month of the first nationwide law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled was supposed to quell the anti-GMO "food transparency" voices and pre-empt the feared financial disaster that patchwork state-to-state labeling laws could bring with it.

    Yet the ink had hardly dried on the 63-to-30 Senate bill, which split Nebraska’s U.S. Senators who argued in voting both for and against that they were doing so to protect farmers, before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. Their issue now? "Genetic editing."  It turns out this more-promising form of biotechnology, known as "genetically edited organisms," likely won't fall under the requirements of the new federal legislation.

    Here's the difference:

    Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their genetic material altered by artifically inserting genes from a different species into them. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) example—now shown to be mostly urban myth—was Monsanto's reported attempt to insert genetic material from flounder into tomatoes in order to increase their frost tolerance. That's the kind of shock value biotechnology opponents built into the term "GMO" in order to further their demands for labeling legislation and other regulatory controls.

    GEOs are organisms that have had a portion of their DNA altered without including foreign genetics. Made possible by the modern ability to "map" all genes in an organism and identify which of those control both negative and positive traits, genetic editing has proven itself in research and human medicine. Now, aided by easy and cheap technology like the most common, known as Crispr-Cas9, GEO is now being tested in agriculture to precisely edit plant and animal genes to control pests, improve important production traits, and even improve environmental impact.

    Unlike past technology that often inserted entire genes or long DNA strands into organisms, Cirspr-Cas9 uses special protein enzymes to snip out only the specific DNA segment that controls the trait in question, replacing it with "knockouts" that repair the DNA minus the specific segment, causing it to either nullify unwanted traits or express desired ones. For instance, phytate is a compound common in corn that reduces a pig's ability to absorb the mineral phosphorus. As a result, much of the phosphorus in pig feed passes through the animal without being used, ending up as a potential pollutant in streams and lakes. Using genetic editing, researchers have been able to snip out the specific gene that causes the final step in phytate production in corn, interrupting the process and creating a corn that will improve phosphorus use and therefore reduce phosphorus pollution.

    A recent commentary in the journal Nature Genetics by molecular geneticists from China's Agricultural Genomics Institute argues important differences between GMO and GEO technology mean they should not be regulated the same. As the journal's editors point out in an editorial in the same issue, "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between [the two]."

    "There is no reason to regulate [GEO]s with gene knockouts or nucleotide variants that either have been documented to exist within crop species or closely related wild species or that can reasonably be expected to arise by spontaneous mutation," the Chinese researchers write. "Because such genetic stocks could in principle...be generated by conventional breeding or random mutagenesis, they should be considered the same as those used in conventional breeding, which are not regulated."

    "The potential benefits of [GEO]s should not be impeded as a result of misinformation, so disclosure and education are the best ways to promote sound policies," the journal editors urge. "Scientists will be more trusted if we deploy technology where it is most needed."

    In late June, more than 100 Nobel laureates went even further, publishing a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding Greenpeace end its campaign targeting biotechnology, and calling it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation.

    “The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

    But the kind of concensus the scientists call for remains elusive, if comments on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during debate on the new labeling legislation are any indication. McGovern argued the law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want. Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

    The Huffington Post echoed the theme, saying the labeling law "is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs" because it doesn't simply say whether or not a food is “made with genetic engineering.”

    “It's very simple," Representative McGovern argued in his floor speech. "The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”

    But as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, this latest confusion over terminology regarding biotechnology is no less nonsensical than the entire broad-brush "GMO" term. An Oklahoma State survey, for instance, showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on "foods containing DNA.” All foods, except perhaps bottled water, contain DNA. Similar work by the same researchers found consumers were nearly equal in their desire for GMO labeling as they were for labeling fruit ripened by the process of using atmospheric ethylene, the common and completely safe ripening process using the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. Their conclusion? When you start including vague terms on a label, it introduces a level of concern that may have little or nothing to do with the real risks of the process or ingredient being labeled.

    The legislation now sits on President Obama's desk. Obama is expected to sign it.

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  • Competitive Commodity Insights: Ho-hum! Another soybean shortage

    Are we setting up for a soybean shortage?

    The weather in South America this cropping season has been brutal, leading to what one commodities watcher called “massive reduction" in the continent's crop size for both corn and soybeans. Flooding contributed to both widespread declines in soybean production and shipping delays on what was produced in Argentina, even as drought in Brazil hurt production of both staple crops. South-American commodities expert Michael Cordonnierin, noting Brazil in mid-July was down to less than one week's supply, raised the possibility that country, the worlds second largest soybean producer, could actually run out of soybeans.

    Meanwhile, with global demand, led by China, unabated, the tight supplies in the southern hemisphere could indirectly lead to a shortage here and around the world, as U.S. exports increase to fill the South American shortfall.

    The world soybean supply is important to grocers because in addition to whole soybean food products and refined soybean oil products, like cookies, snack foods, cooking oils and margarine, soybeans are used in a wide variety of food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. They are also the second most common ingredient in U.S. animal feeds.

    USDA reported in mid July the 2015-2016 U.S. export forecast is raised nearly 1 million tons, on top of last month’s 500,000-ton rise, currently standing at 48.9 million tons. In addition, the export forecast for 2016 and 2017 is raised to a record 52.3 million, 4 percent above the previous record set in 2014 and 2015.

    South America is gobbling up all the soybeans

    Those rocketing export levels will cut into the season-ending stockpiles of soybeans in this country, holding up prices above those observed in 2015. U.S. export bids in June averaged up $39 per ton from last month, at $444 per ton, the highest level in nearly 2 years.

    However, it's important to note more than 66 million tons of soybeans in ending stocks are still available worldwide. That's down by 16 percent from 2014-2015's high of 78.4 million, but still higher than the low of 55.4 million in 2012-2013. So "shortage" may be premature. USDA's latest report on crop progress in this country shows the soybean crop in the states representing 95 percent of all production was 13 percent ahead of last year and 15 percent ahead of the 5-year average. Overall, 71 percent of the U.S. soybean crop was reported in good to excellent condition, unchanged from the week before but 15 percent above the same time last year.

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  • Meet your Farmers: Bertrand farmer Linda Schwarz talks about organic vs. chemical weed control

    Bertrand's Linda Schwarz discusses the realities of weed control without the use of common chemical pesticides.

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  • On the Lighter Side: Dream job? Nightmare, maybe

    On those beautiful Nebraska mornings when you're tired of being cooped up in the backroom or stuck at a desk, the young man's thoughts drift to jobs in the outdoors and the fresh air, like this simple task of changing lightbulbs just over the state line in South Dakota.

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