August 27, 2008

Statement of Grave Concern

Below is the text of a recent letter to the dean of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. It was also posted to a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture message board. The “statement of grave concern” is both intriguing and disturbing, and for those who aren’t immediate members of the local agriculture community but who, like me, just like to eat what those guys produce, is a real eye opener.

I’ve bolded some sentences to add emphasis, and I have some further commentary after the letter, but be sure to read the whole thing. Also, let me apologize in advance for being such a techno-idiot that I cannot figure out how to do that “read the rest of the entry” thing. I’ve tried a few times, but failed. In either case, happy reading.

Statement of Grave Concern

August 19, 2008

To: Robert D. Steele, Dean, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

From: Timothy LaSalle, CEO, Rodale Institute
Leslie Zuck, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO)
Kim Seeley, President, Board of Directors, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)

Pennsylvania Ag Progress Days is one of the state's premiere annual events to showcase the best of Pennsylvania agriculture. The 2008 edition of this event comes after a year when food costs, food safety, food v. fuel use and even food sufficiency have been major news items.

It is therefore deeply disappointing and frankly shocking that members of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences have announced a departmental slate of workshops that attack a number of approaches to farming that are benefiting hundreds of family farmers across the Commonwealth. Many of these feature human, environmental or animal advantages documented by research -- some by research at Penn State.

A July 28 press release titled "See agricultural myths busted during Ag Progress Days," promises "we will investigate and analyze some widely believed agricultural misconceptions and scientifically show why they are false." Some of the myths promised to be "debunked" include:

  • "High Milk Production Burns Out cows"
  • "Organic Therapies are Better than Conventional Antibiotic Treatments"
  • "Grass-fed and Organic Beef is better for Consumers" and
  • "rBST-Free Milk is Better for Consumers"

The "myth-buster" topics listed in the release are simplistic and sweeping statements about organic animal-health therapies, grass-fed and organic beef, rBST-free milk and agriculture's impact on the environment. This format reduces complex issues of animal, human and environmental well-being to a true-or-false treatment of selected facts. There is no indication that the workshops will be careful examinations of how Pennsylvania agriculture can become more ecologically sound or produce food that is more healthful through many different agricultural approaches.

Because of benefits to their health, well-being and profitability, hundreds of Pennsylvania farmers have chosen to farm organically. With the even greater numbers who have adopted grass-based dairy or beef production, these farm families have experienced greater profit potential and seen empirical evidence of changed conditions in their fields and herds.

It is profoundly troubling, then, that the Penn State planners of these workshops would so recklessly disparage the value of products being marketed by Pennsylvania farmers. In the case of certified organic farmers, these individuals have complied with precise process rules listed in federal regulation sanctioned by the USDA. It is further troubling to have the animal science department at Penn State take a propaganda-like approach for a narrow special interest group.

Innovative farmers and farm organizations in Pennsylvania expect our Land-Grant university to be a leader in improving the sustainability of agriculture in a period when fossil-fuel based inputs are more expensive and scarce and it's increasingly imperative to remove farm chemicals from our waterways. At the same time consumers are demanding more local food produced with less energy-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in more transparent processes.

Timothy J. LaSalle, Ph.D., is CEO of the Rodale Institute. … For 12 years he was a full professor at Cal Poly, where he taught dairy science classes and served as the president and CEO of California's Agriculture Education Foundation. While at Cal Poly, LaSalle started and operated a conventional dairy near Templeton, California. He issued this statement on the release:

"As a dairy scientist, I find Penn State's treatment of organic dairy management unobjective, unscientific, unprofessional and deleterious to many livestock farmers in Pennsylvania who are making extra efforts to farm well. Replicated research shows that there are nutritional benefits in organic milk that are beneficial to human health. This approach also dismisses the legitimate concerns of tens of thousands of Pennsylvania consumers who are benefiting from the documented health benefits from organic foods, especially animal products."

Leslie Zuck is a co-founder and Executive Director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a graduate of Penn State University (1980). She owns and operates Common Ground Organic Farm in Centre County and served on the advisory board for Penn State's Organic Transition Project, which can be viewed on the bus tour at Ag Progress Days. She issued this statement on the release:

"Scientific, peer-reviewed studies published by reputable universities and research organizations show the health and environmental benefits of organic, pasture-based and rBGH-free food and farming systems. It is irresponsible for Penn State researchers to use the Ag Progress Days venue to "scientifically show why they are false" (quote from Brad Hilty, Penn State senior extension associate). It is exceedingly unprofessional for an institution of Penn State's caliber to stoop to sensationalizing an important and controversial topic rather than approaching it directly with fair, accurate and well-balanced discourse. This event perpetuates the myth that there is only one way to farm - big, industrialized, highly capitalized, resource intensive - Penn State's way.

"It is a mystery to me why Penn State is unwilling to support organic farming, which is the only sector of agriculture that continues to grow in our state. While farms are going out of business due to lack of profits or lack of interest by future generations, organic production provides an opportunity for families to stay on the farm, produce healthy food, protect the environment and receive a stable income. While we appreciate Penn State College of Agricultural Science's offering several courses in organic production for the first time this year, we are certainly mystified by this unwarranted attempt to steer consumers and farmers away from organic food and production methods.

"We suggest Penn State issue an apology to the thousands of organic and sustainable farmers of Pennsylvania who are working hard to produce high-quality, nutritious and healthy food for our Commonwealth."

Kim Seeley is president of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), co-owner of Milky Way Dairy Farm and co-founder of Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op. Both farm enterprises supply Penn State's sister school, The Pennsylvania College of Technology food service, with all of their fluid milk and a majority of their ground beef requirements. He issued this statement on the release:

"Unfortunately this is what I have come to expect, since graduating from Penn State 30 years ago. I realized then how research money was having a growing influence in the Land Grant university system. Regrettably for Pennsylvania dairy and beef farmers, the Department of Animal and Dairy Science has been infiltrated the most with an unparalleled lack of respect for the basics of animal husbandry and denial of the intricate differences in nutritional content of animal byproducts from those produced on pasture or by organic methods.

"Recently the Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op funded research at Penn State (not via dairy/animal science) looking at fat-soluble vitamin levels in ground beef samples from cows fed on pasture and stored feeds. The results of this research tell the story clearly, production methods create very different end results. Each of the past 5 years, I have guest lectured at Penn State for a course entitled "Morality and Ethics in Agriculture," and when I show butter and cheese samples from grass-based cows, compared to our winter samples, the students are wide eyed and openly admit they are only studying an industrial approach to dairy/animal science."

Now, admittedly, this is a one-sided argument. But I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to these letter writers.

Having written about medical research for more than a decade, I know that universities get money from industry and industry front groups for all sorts of things, including funding research, supporting educational programs, etc. And it’s clear that some times this funding can create bias, some times unintentional, toward products produced or positions taken by those industries.

But reading this letter, one gets a clear impression that these folks believe the Penn State Ag program is lock, stock, and barrel in industry’s back pocket. And there is some evidence to support that.

When, for example, I was doing research for the op-ed on the milk labeling controversy I had published in December in the Post-Gazette, I came across the blog of Terry Etherton (although this blog doesn’t allow comments, which, IMO, means it really isn’t a blog).

Dr. Etherton is head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State University. The following is some of the text from the “about this blog” section of his blog:

There are many anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science activist groups who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers. This is done to hinder adoption and use of the products of biotechnology for agriculture. These attacks are slanderous and falsely imprecate the scientific method and many reputable scientists in the United States and throughout the World who are striving to move society ahead. One objective of this blog site is to champion science and scientists who are pursuing the greater good, to help society move forward.

To begin with, it is hard to fathom that any respected scientist could produce such… well, let’s be honest about it, drivel. I have spoken with some of the country’s most well-respected researchers on topics like infectious disease, cardiology, and cancer, and I’m fairly certain none of them – or at least 99 percent of them -- would ever post/publish such a generalized ad hominem attack.

I must wonder if, in Dr. Etherton’s mind, this paragraph describes people like the writers of the above “Statement of Grave Concern.” They may be, in many respects, anti-biotech, but I think one would be hard-pressed to say they are anti-ag or even anti-science.

According to Dr. Etherton, those who don’t think pumping cows full of hormones to squeeze a little more milk out of ‘em -- damn the cow’s health or any potential threat to the public health (threats that people like Dr. Etherton argue do not exist, based on little data in actual humans) -- doesn’t want “to move society ahead.”

Personally, I would consider things like promoting organic methods for producing crops and milk and meat (which protects the environment and improves soil quality, among other things), and reducing the use of chemicals and pesticides that can infiltrate and destroy water ways and harm people and animals the ideal example of “moving society ahead.” But I’m just silly that way.

Reading through some recent posts from Dr. Etherton’s blog also demonstrates, well, should we call it a disdain for any sort of agricultural practice that doesn’t involve inputs that line the pockets of biotech companies like Monsanto. For example, one recent post highlight a study published in the “prestigious” Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study, he explains, “found that there were ‘no meaningful differences’ in the composition of milk with the three different label claims,” those claims being “conventional,” “hormone/rBST-free,” or “organic.”

I’m in no position to judge the quality of this research. I freely admit that. Although I could point out that the objections to milk from rBST cows aren’t strictly relegated to human health concerns (not that this study in any way alleviates those concerns – you need to take an exhaustive look at actual humans to do that!).

But given the theme of the “Statement of Grave Concern” that prompted this post, I’ll just end with something very simple, from the “authors” box of the paper: the affiliation of the lead author and the majority of the others listed as co-authors…

J. Vicini is a senior research fellow, J. Ballam is lead for biostatistics and data services, R. Staub is lead for molecular and cellular biochemistry, D. Goldstein is director of medical toxicology, R. Cady is technical product manager, and M. McGrath is senior lactation physiologist, all at Monsanto Company LC, St Louis, MO.


The Farmer's Wife Pasture-raised Poultry said...

I was absolutely appalled and completely dissed at the reckless comments by Penn State. I actually cancelled my plans to attend Ag Progress Days based on those statements. Equally enlightening was Kim Miller's, former PASA Board President, response. Anyone who doubts corporate influence in agriculture just needs to google "food politics".

Fillippelli the Cook said...

It is disturbing, yet you wonder what can be done about it.

I just picked up Uncertain Peril by Claire Hope Cummings hoping to learn more about this whole issue.