Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tribute to the Jayhawks

So I grew up in Topeka, KS and always wanted to go to only one college: The University of Kansas. I went to basketball camp at KU in 1979 as a 3rd grader and then attended my first game at the historic Allen Fieldhouse the next year in 1980, watching star guard Darnell Valentine. For the last three seasons since our 20-yr. high school reunion, a number of my high school buddies (all of us in our 40s), make sure that we get to a couple games a year either down at the Fieldhouse or as we will this year in a couple of weeks, down at the Sprint Center in KC for the Big 12 tournament.

Well today was a special day for KU basketball in that the 105 year rivalry with the University of Missouri comes to an end. Today was the 267th meeting between the two schools, with a vitriol and hatred for one another that actually has its roots as far back as the Civil War when the confederate state of Missouri and its guerilla leader William Quantrill raided free state Kansas and its inhabitants in Lawrence, massacring many, including killing most of the town's men and boys (google Quantrill's Raid if you are interested in learning this history). Of course, the honest historian will also need to share that Quantrill's raid was a response to the anti-slavery Jayhawkers destroying the town of Osceola, MO, so that there was plenty of atrocity on both sides; thus, the intense rivalry that rages nearly 150 years later.

Next year Missouri has chosen to leave the Big 12 conference and go to the Southeast Conference, leaving behind one of the very best rivalries in all of college basketball. Today KU rallied from 19 pts. down to tie the game just before the end of regulation. KU went up by 1 point with 8.3 seconds left in overtime, and Missouri guard, Marcus Denmon, shot the ball with time expiring, making the basket (that would have won the game); however, the shot did not count since time had run out. KU wins 87-86 (

It's good to be a Jayhawk...

11-Yr.-Old Birke Baehr asks, "What's Wrong with Our Food System?"

Listen to this amazing kid; he has something to share with all of us.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Calling, Cows, a City and the Common Good

I thought I'd share this brief blogpost by one of my doctoral program mentors Steven Garber:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Proper Confidence in a Pluralist Society

"I want to suggest the word 'confidence' as the one which designates the proper attitude. In a pluralist society, any confident affirmation of the truth is met by the response, 'Why should I believe this rather than that?' Every statement of ultimate belief is liable to be met by this criticism, and- of course- if it is indeed an ultimate belief then it cannot be validated by something more ultimate. Our ultimate commitments are (as I have argued in an earlier chapter) always circular in structure. Having been brought (not by our own action but by the action of God) to the point of believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we seek to understand and cope with every kind of experience and every evidence of truth in light of this faith. We are constantly called upon to rethink our faith in the light of these new experiences and evidences. We are prepared to recognize (as every human being has to recognize) that there are areas of mystery and that there are puzzles which are not solved for a long time. But we expect to find, and we do find, that the initial faith is confirmed, strengthened, and enlarged as we go on through life. And if, as always happens in a pluralist society, we are asked: 'But why start with Jesus? Why not start somewhere else?' we have to answer that no rational thought is possible except by starting with something which is already given in some human tradition of rational thought and discourse. Our immediate answer may well be, 'Why not?' For the ultimate answer we have to wait for the end of all things. That expectant waiting is part of what it is to live a full human life.

I therefore believe that a Christian must welcome some measure of plurality but reject pluralism. We can and must welcome a plural society because it provides us with a wider range of experience and a wider diversity of human responses to experience, and therefore richer opportunities for testing the sufficiency of our faith than are available in a monochrome society. As we confess Jesus as Lord in a plural society, and as the Church grows through the coming of people from many different cultural and religious traditions to faith in Christ, we are enable to learn more of the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of God (Eph. 3:14-19) than we can in a monochrome society. But we must reject the ideology of pluralism. We must reject the invitation to live in a society where everything is subjective and relative, a society which has abandoned the belief that truth can be known and has settled for a purely subjective view of truth- 'truth for you' but not truth for all.... Freedom to think and say what you like will not provide the resources for a resolute grappling with false beliefs. The demand for freedom of thought and expression must itself rest on some firmly held belief about the origin, nature, and destiny of human life. If it has no such foundation it will prove powerless..."

A Priesthood to Nourish Priestly People

"In some Christian circles it is unfashionable to talk much about the ordained ministry, because of the fear of being guilty of elitism, one of contemporary society's catalogue of unforgivable sins. Without going into elaborate discussion about this fear, I will make two simple points. First, I hope I have made clear my belief that it is the whole Church which is called to be- in Christ- a royal priesthood, that every member of the body is called to the exercise of this priesthood, and that this priesthood is to be exercised in the daily life and work of Christians in the secular business of the world. But this will not happen unless there is a ministerial priesthood which serves, nourishes, sustains, and guides this priestly work. The priestly people needs a ministering priesthood to sustain and nourish it.... And, second, one can put the same point from the other side. The full participation of the members of a body in its activity does not happen without leadership. The business of leadership is precisely to enable, encourage, and sustain the activity of all the members. To set 'participation' and 'leadership' against each other is absurd. Clericalism and anticlericalism are simply two sides of one mistake."

Visible Communities in Geography and Daily Work

"If I am right in believing as I do, that the only effective hermeneutic of the gospel is the life of the congregation which believes it, one has to ask about how such congregations may be helped to become what they are called to be. I referred in the last chapter to the contrast, which I suppose everyone has made at some time or another, between the 'ordinary parson-led congregation' and 'something more exciting but less visible.' The idea of an invisible Church is, of course, always attractive for the simple reason that one chooses in the privacy of one's own mind who are the members and who are not. By contrast the Church in the New Testament is represented by visible communities of men and women located in places which can be visited and to which letters can be written. This is not to deny the very important point,... that there is a spiritual reality 'in the heavenly places' which is not visible to the eye of flesh but which is the reality which has visible embodiment in these congregations; that there are 'angels' of churches, spiritual realities which are more than simply the sum of the individual members;... But the 'angels' do not have any impact on events except as they are represented by visible congregations which have a specific location- whether in the primary geographical sense, or in the sense of location within one of the sectors of public life in a complex and multisectional modern society. I have already said that I believe that the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations and not through the official pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies. But the developing, nourishing, and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing congregation."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Challenging the Public Life of Society

"If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the 'high ground' which they vacated in the noontime of 'modernity,' it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns.... It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God's redeeming grace for the whole life of society."

The Congregation as Hermeneutic

"... yet I confess that I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel- evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.

Jesus, as I said earlier, did not write a book but formed a community. This community has at its heart the remembering and rehearsing of his words and deeds, and the sacraments given by him through which it is enabled both to engraft new members into its life and to renew this life again and again through sharing in his risen life through the body broken and the lifeblood poured out. It exists in him and for him. He is the center of its life. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find the gospel gives them the framework of understanding the 'lenses' through which they are able to understand and cope with the world."

The Great Reality

"The Church is an entity which has outlasted many states, nations, and empires, and it will outlast those that exist today. The Church is nothing other than that movement launched into the public life of the world by its sovereign Lord to continue that which he came to do until it is finished in his return in glory. It has his promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. In spite of the crimes, blunders, compromises, and errors by which its story has been stained and is stained to this day, the Church is the great reality in comparison with which nations and empires and civilizations are passing phenomena. The Church can never settle down to being a voluntary society concerned merely with private and domestic affairs. It is bound to challenge in the name of the one Lord all the powers, ideologies, myths, assumptions, and worldviews which do not acknowledge him as Lord. If that involves conflict, trouble, and rejection, then we have the example of Jesus before us and his reminder that a servant is not greater than his master."

Science, Education, Religion and Irreligion

"A large amount of statistical material has been gathered and analyzed by sociologists of religion in the effort to discover what correlation exists, if any, between religious belief and achievement in the natural and human sciences. Two conclusions from these studies are of interest in my present discussion. The first is this. To quote Professor Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton, 'virtually all surveys and polls, whether of the general public, college students, church members or clergy, show inverse relations between exposure to higher education and adherence to core religious tenets' (The Sacred in a Secular Age, p. 189). In other words, the better educated you are in our modern society, the less time you have for religion. But, and this is the significant point, the survey shows that, to quote Wuthnow again, 'it is the irreligious who are selected into academic careers in the first place, not that the process of being socialized into the academic life causes them to become less and less religious' (p. 191). The second finding in this. The correlation between academic life and irreligion is much higher in the social sciences and the humanities than it is among natural sciences- physics, chemistry, and biology. Atomic physicists are much more likely to believe in God than sociologists. These two facts taken together lead Professor Wuthnow to make an interesting suggestion, based on the work of the sociology of science. Science, like every human activity, is a socially embedded exercise and therefore scientists are under the necessity of demarcating the boundaries of their exercise. The editor of a scientific magazine has to be able to recognize what is science and what is not. This boundary definition is much easier in the case of the natural sciences like physics and chemistry. These sciences have a high degree to clarity and internal consistency. It is more difficult in the case of sciences like sociology, economics, psychology, and even more in the humanities, to say where exactly the boundary is to be drawn. Yet the drawing of the boundary is essential to the corporate sense of identity without which the scientific community cannot flourish. Wuthnow suggests that the two facts which I have referred to can best be explained on the hypothesis that the irreligion of academics is essentially a matter of boundary demarcation. It is clear that it is not the contents of these academic disciplines themselves which cause alienation from religion. The irreligion, insofar as it has been documented, is a factor at the point of entry into the study, not a product of it."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Christian Discipleship as Both Homely and Heroic

Lesslie Newbigin spent 40 years on the mission field in India. He was also an avid churchman having been "sent" as a Church of Scottland missionary. Though being a Presbyterian minister, he would later become appointed bishop of the Anglican/Protestant body known as the Church of South India. Also, Newbigin would become the Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. One of Newbigin's seminal works was The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. While not an "easy read," nonetheless I've found it to be an extremely helpful book as someone who came to Christ in a parachurch "missions-minded" ministry; yet, later would find myself most captured by a vision of the centrality of the local church in fulfilling the missio Dei (or Great Commission if you prefer). In this section on human culture, I truly appreciate how Newbigin sets up an appropriate and healthy tension the Christian must live in, if she is to live faithfully "in the world" and encourage others to do so as well:

… it will follow that we are called neither to a simple affirmation of human culture nor to a simple rejection of it. We are to cherish human culture as an area in which we live under God’s grace and are given daily new tokens of that grace. But we are called also to remember that we are part of that whole seamless texture of human culture which was shown on the day we call Good Friday to be in murderous rebellion against the grace of God. We have to say both “God accepts human culture” and also “God judges human culture.” There will have to be room in the Christian life for the two attitudes which Von Hügel used to call the homely and the heroic. Christian discipleship can never be all homeliness nor all heroism. It has to have elements of both and it has to learn from day to day when to accept the homely duties of life as it is, and when to take the heroic road of questioning and challenging the accepted ways. It was necessary for the early church, at crucial moments, to take the heroic path and to accept martyrdom rather than submit to what the vast majority of people took for granted. But it was also right that, when the time came with the conversion of Constantine, the Church should accept the role of sustainer and cherisher of the political order. It is right for churches to be dissenting communities challenging accepted norms and structures. It is right also in other circumstances for the Church to be the church for the nation or the parish, the cherisher and sustainer of the ordinary work of the farmer, the judge, and the soldier. What is wrong is the absolutizing of one position against the other and the corresponding ex-communication of those who take the other role. What is needed is the discernment to know, from day to day and from issue to issue, when the one stance is appropriate and the when the other.  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 195-96

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Addendum: A Feedlot Vet's Take on Feedlot Diets

"Compared to all the other things we feed cattle these days, corn seems positively wholesome. And yet it too violates the biological or evolutionary logic of bovine digestion. During my day at Poky I spent a few hours with Dr. Mel Metzin, the staff veterinarian, learning more than any beef eater really should know about the gastrointestinal life of the modern cow. Dr. Mel, as he's known at Poky, oversees a team of eight cowboys who spend their days riding the yard's dusty streets, spotting sick animals and bringing them into Poky's three 'hospitals' for treatment. Most of the health problems that afflict feedlot cattle can be traced either directly or indirectly to their diet. 'They're made to eat forage,' Dr. Metzin explained, and we're making them eat grain.

'It's not that they can't adjust,' he continues, 'and now we're breeding cattle to do well in a feedyard.' One way to look at the breeding work going on at ranches like the Blairs' is that the contemporary beef cow is being selected for the ability to eat large quantities of corn and efficiently convert it to protein without getting too sick. (These, after all, are precisely the genes prized in the steer's father). The species is evolving, in other words, to help absorb the excess biomass coming off America's cornfields. But the cow's not there quite yet, and a great many feedlot cattle- virtually all of them to one degree or another, according to several animal scientists I talked to- are simply sick.

Bloat is perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn. The fermentation in the rumen produces copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. but when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, a rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal's lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal's esophagus), the animal suffocates.

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidiotic animals go off the feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumentitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases- pneumonia, cocidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio. Much like modern humans, modern cattle are susceptible to a set of relatively new diseases of civilization- assuming, that is, we're willing to put the modern feedlot under the rubric of civilization.

Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be about as much as their systems can tolerate. 'I don't know how long you could feed them this ration before you'd see problems,' Dr. Metzin said; another vet told me the diet would eventually 'blow out their lives' and kill them. Over time the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal's bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver's function. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers; Dr. Mel told me that in some pens the figure runs as high as 70 percent.

What keeps a feedlot animal healthy- or healthy enough- are antibiotics. Rumensin buffers acidity in the rumen, helping to prevent bloat and acidiosis, and Tylosin, a form of erythromycin, lowers the incidence of liver infection. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs. In the debate over the use of antibiotics agriculture, a distinction is usually made between their clinical and nonclinical uses. Public health advocates don't object to treating sick animals with antibiotics; they just don't want to see the drugs lose their effectiveness because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to promote growth. But the use of antibiotics in feedlot cattle confounds this distinction. Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn't be sick if not for the diet of grain we feed them.

I asked Dr. Mel what would happen if drugs like Rumensin and Tylosin were banned from cattle feed, as some public health experts advocate. 'We'd have a high death rate [it's currently about 3 percent matching the industrial average] and poorer performing cattle. We just couldn't feed them as hard.' The whole system would have to change and slow down."

More on Earlier Pollan Post: The Feedlot

In wanting to understand more fully how the industrial food chain works, Pollan purchases an eight-month-old calf from Blair Ranch in South Dakota. At that time, the calf is transported to Poky Feeders Feedlot in Kansas where Pollan pays $1.60 a day for room, board and meds. Here are some of Pollan's observations:
  1. By far the biggest portion of the American corn commodity (about 60 percent) goes to feeding livestock.
  2. Since WWII, America’s food animals have undergone a “revolution in lifestyle.” Animals have moved from widely-dispersed farms to densely populated animal cities. These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was coined to denote them: CAFO- Concentrated Animal Feeding Organization.
  3. Farmers then lose the ability to compete with CAFOs, so animals leave the farms and the farms are left for corn.
  4. It costs a farmer more to grow feed corn than it costs a CAFO to buy it.
  5. As CAFOs grew, corn production increased and found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat much of it (like cattle). Farmed salmon are now being bred to tolerate grain as well. Where else might the excess biomass of corn go?
  6. The economic logic of CAFOs is hard to argue against: meat is made, its cheap and abundant and most American families can eat it whenever they want.
  7. But what about environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens?
  8. A closed ecological loop results with fertility problems dealt with by chemical fertilizers and pollution problems on the feedlot not really addressed.
  9. Another biological absurdity is that animals are made to adapt in ways “animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection (Pollan is not a Christian, but his concept is what Christians would translate ‘divine design’) to live on grass must be adapted by us- a considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters- to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.... The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution” (p. 68).
  10. 4 out of every 5 beef cattle are slaughtered by one of four giant meatpacking companies (Tyson subsidiary IBP, Cargill subsidiary Excel, Swift & Company, and National), “These corporations have concluded that it takes so much land (and therefore capital) to produce a calf ready for the feedlot- ten acres per head at a minimum- that they’re better off leaving the ranching (and the risk) to the ranchers” (p. 69).
  11. Pollan's steer had spent his first 6 months in lush pastures alongside his mother, eating native grasses (western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass).
  12. Cows, sheep, bison and other ruminants have “evolved the special ability to convert grass- which single-stomached creatures like us can’t digest- into high-quality protein. They can do this because they possess what is surely the most highly evolved digestive organ in nature; the rumen. About the size of a medicine ball, the organ is essentially a twenty-gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria dines on grass.... Truly this is an excellent system for all concerned: for the grasses, for the bacteria, for he animals, and for us, the animals’ eaters. While it is true that overgrazing can do ecological harm to a grassland, in recent years ranchers have adopted rotational grazing patterns that more closely mimic the patterns of the bison, a ruminant that sustainably grazed these same grasses for thousands of years before the cow displaced it. In fact, a growing number of ecologists now believe the rangelands are healthier with cattle on them, provided they’re moved frequently. Today the most serious environmental harm associated with the cattle industry takes place on the feedlot” (p. 70).
  13. How do you get a steer from 80 to 1100 lbs. in fourteen months?  Answer: a tremendous amount of corn, protein, fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs, “Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth” (p. 71). In the early part of the 20th century, a cow was 4-5 years-old at slaughter. In the 50s, they were 2-3 years-old and today they are 14-16 months. “Efficiency” is the key word here.
  14. The industrial logic is rational and even irresistible- “we have been successful at making beef everyday fare for millions of people for whom it once represented a luxury” (p. 71).
  15. After 6 months in lush pastures, Pollan's steer was weaned from his mother (so she can be quickly inseminated again), spent 2 months in a “backgrounding” pen preparing for life on the feedlot. He is confined to a pen, taught to eat from a trough and gradually accustomed to a new and unnatural diet- the rumen encounters corn.
  16. At about 8 months, he is taken to the CAFO, “a city built upon commodity corn.”
  17. Here the feed mill prepares 3 meals a day for 37,000 animals. A million lbs. of feed passes through the mill each day. Every hour of every day, a tractor trailer pulls up to the loading dock to deliver another 50 tons of corn. The corn is released into the mill. On the other side of the building, silo-shaped trucks pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements. In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen beside pallets stacked with 50 lb. sacks of antibiotics- Rumensin and Tylosin. Along with alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks three time a day to fill Poky’s 8.5 miles of trough.
  18. Before being put on this highly concentrated diet, the steer will be treated for a few days with fresh long-stemmed hay since his rumen has to be restarted after the long transport. Over the next several weeks, he will gradually step up to a daily ration of 32 lbs. of feed, 3/4 of which is corn.
  19. Is corn natural to cows?  “We’ve come to think of ‘corn-fed’ as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you’re referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. It’s chief advantage is that cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef” (p. 75).
  20. “Corn has become so deeply ingrained in the whole system of producing beef in America that whenever I (Michael Pollan) raised any questions about it among ranchers and feedlot operators or animal scientists, people looked at me as if I’d just arrived from another planet. (Or perhaps from Argentina, where excellent steaks are produced on nothing but grass).... The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market” (p. 75). 

More on Earlier Pollan Post: Corn as King

So I've received some pushback from a couple of good brothers who are a part of my weekly community group. These brothers have brought into question whether eating grassfed beef and its initial increased expense is truly more advantageous than feedlot beef. Another brother questions the accuracy of some of my descriptions of what happens to a cow that ends up on the feedlot.

Well, since I was basically summarizing Pollan's book, much from memory, I thought I'd go back and at least build Pollan's argument on a more detailed level; that way, I have less of a chance of misrepresenting Pollan. This will be the first of two more posts on the Pollan book. The first will be on "Corn as King" and the second on "The Feedlot."

So the first thing to point out is that an entire 1/3 of Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma is devoted to the history of corn and its development in our country. Though I've not yet viewed the documentary "King Corn," I've heard that it makes a similar case to Pollan's. What is Pollan's main point? The industrial development of first generation hybrid corn (F-1 seed) as well as GM (genetically modified corn by companies such as Monsanto), has led to a harmful and unsustainable cycle of corn farmers needing substantial federal subsidies (paid for by taxpayer dollars) as well as the excessive use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (AMF) to increase crop yields. F-1 corn responds extremely well to AMF and produces yields that are more than a hundredfold from what was the case less than 100 years ago. However, the damage to our environment and our health (among other things) is significant. So I've tried to summarize Pollan's thoughts. Having never been raised on a farm (unlike my good brothers who are giving me some friendly "pushback"), I will try to present Pollan's argument the best I can and leave our agreements and disagreements to be leveled at Michael Pollan (how's that for letting myself off the hook? :-)):

  1. in 1920, a farmer could produce about 20 bushels of corn per acre (same yields as Native Americans historically).
  2. Hybrid seeds came on the market in the 1930s and by the 50s, yields were in the 70-80 bushels of corn per acre.
  3. Today modern F-1 hybrids can yield over 200 bushels of corn per acre.
  4. There was more diversity to a typical Iowa farm until the mid 50s when soaring corn yields gave way to more and more land being given over to corn.
  5. Starting at about that time (1950s), cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead on grass and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than on farmlands, so cattle and chickens disappeared from many local farms.  By the 1980s, the diversified family farm was history in Iowa, corn was king.
  6. Planting corn on corn year in and year out brought plagues of insects and disease, so chemical weed killers became necessary.
  7. In 1947, the huge munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama switched over to making chemical fertilizer.  After the war, the government had a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate (AN), the principal ingredient in making explosives.
  8. Ammonium nitrate is also an excellent source of nitrogen for plants, so agronomists in the Department of Agriculture turned their surplus of AN to the chemical fertilizer industry.
  9. Prior to the chemical fertilizer industry, corn yields were much lower simply because the nitrogen in the soil that came from rotating crops and livestock manure was significantly limited.
  10. To this point, “what had become a local, sun-driven cycle of fertility in which the legumes fed the corn which fed the livestock which in turn (with their manure) fed the corn, was now broken.  Now a corn farmer could plant corn every year and on as much of his acreage as he chose, since he had no need for the legumes or the animal manure.  He could buy fertility in a bag,...” (p. 44-45).
  11. “More than half of all synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn, whose hybrid strains can make better use of it than any other plant.  Growing corn, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of capturing sunlight to turn it into food, has in no small measure become a process of converting fossil fuels into food....  When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it take to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it- or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn.” (p. 45).
  12. Today it takes more than 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food.  Before the advent of chemical fertilizer, the ratio was 2 calories of food energy for every 1 calorie of invested energy.
  13. Now we need about 100-180 lbs of synthetic nitrogen per acre, but if applied the wrong time of year or you get run off from rain, a farmer puts down a little extra to “just to be safe,” some evaporates into the air, some gets into the water table.  Pollan claims that in Des Moines in the spring when nitrogen run-off is the highest, there are “blue baby alerts” warning against using the public municipal supply.  
  14. Iowa State University estimated it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn.  In October 2005, the Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 a bushel.  How do these economics work?
  15. Farmers feel pressure to apply more nitrogen seeking to squeeze a few more bushels from their soil, but the more bushels the farmer produces, the lower the prices go pushing further the perils of overproduction (terrible cycle enslaving farmers, making many go bankrupt).
  16. The plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverished farmers continue to degrade the land from overproduction, pollute the water and bleed the Federal Treasury which now lends up to $5 billion a year in subsidizing cheap corn.
  17. Who benefits?  The subsidy checks go to the farmers (to cover the gap), but the buyers of the cheap corn are the ones who make the killing on the market (Cargill and Coca-Cola for example).  
  18. All the while, corn that is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide ( helps produce larger yields than ever before (even moreso than F-1 hybrids) but causing health problems at many levels being unhealthy seeds as they are,... Monsanto being the biggest culprit here as the leading producer of genetically modified seed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Recently I finished Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The book asks a few basic questions about how well we understand the process that our food undergoes before reaching our plate. Also, why wouldn't we take great care to understanding and researching our food in the same way that we might purchase a new home or a new car? After all, what we eat is something we put into our bodies every single day. A few major observations I leave with are such:

First of all, because we don't have a larger cultural narrative around the purpose of food, what it serves, the human needs of not only sustenance but also community, also the appreciation for the real cost of killing something or foraging for something, as a result we've become disintegrated and unhealthy human beings. Think about all the fad diets, the substitute meal-like powders, speciality drinks, gimmicky exercise programs, all for what end? For being an extremely obese and out-of-shape culture. Listen to how Pollan describes American eating cultural habits when compared to the French:

… the French experience- a population of wine-swilling cheese eaters with lower rates of heart disease and obesity- confounds our orthodoxy about food. That orthodoxy regards certain tasty foods as poisons (carbs now, fats then), failing to appreciate that how we eat, and even how we feel about eating, may in the end be just as important as what we eat. The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules. They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. In other words, the French culture of food successfully negotiates the omnivore’s dilemma, allowing the French to enjoy their meals without ruining their health.

Perhaps because we have no such culture of food in America almost every question about eating is up for grabs. Fats or carbs? Three squares of continuous grazing? Raw or cooked? Organic or industrial? Veg or vegan? Meat or mock meat? Foods of astounding novelty fill the shelves of our supermarkets, and the line between a food and a “nutritional supplement” has fogged to the point where people make meals of protein bars and shakes. Consuming these neo-pseudo-foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own. Is it any wonder Americans suffer from so many eating disorders? In the absence of any lasting consensus about what an dhow and where and when to eat, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned to America with an almost atavistic force.  p. 300-01

Secondly, I'm forced to think about what Sir Albert Howard, the English agronomist and knight who did extensive research in India on the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture, said about natural biological systems (p. 145). What Howard established was that the nature biological processes at work in a forest or prairie could have its parallel on a farm, that animals could feed on plant wastes as they do in the wild; in turn their wastes could feed the soil; mulches could protect the bare soil; the compost pile could create humus. So a natural life-cycle ensues: animals eat a variety of plants and grasses- the varieties found in nature are healthy for the animals and prevents disease from spreading in both the animals as well as across the ecosystem. The animals being healthy and having a varied diet defecate a wholesome waste product that feed, nurtures and protects the environment and healthy plant life and vegetation springs forth from the the "healthy waste product."

But now, consider how industrial farming is done. Efficiency and profit is the key. So a strip of land is cleared to grow one kind of crop. Because the crops are "monocultured" instead of "polycultured," so disease tends to spread through them. To combat disease, fertilizers are used. As one example, feedlot cows are fed from primarily a monoculture of either one type of grass or grain (high energy grain, to "beef them up"). Because they are fed a monocultured diet, they are not particularly healthy, so antibiotics are fed into them (this serves the purpose of keeping them alive as well as "beefing them up." The bigger the better for profit and sales; however, there is research that suggests that grain contributes to an unhealthy marbling that arguably could be the cause of inflammation in both the cow as well as the human who eats the cow. Is red meat really bad for the heart? Or is it the grain that has been put into the cow that is now inflamed with excessive levels of omega-6s instead? So we eat the steak that tastes kind of "flat" since it is "blown up" with everything from grain to antibiotics, and we add A-1 sauce to make it taste good. But what if an animal is grown with a healthy variety of hays and grasses? Might the complexity of the taste be enough to satisfy the pallet? (this is another one of Pollan's points is that we've gotten away from "taste and tradition" guiding our food selection, p. 300).

So the concept of polycultured raising of animals that leads to a higher "happiness" quotient for the animal while alive, their humane treatment, overall health of the animals, the ecosystem that is built on complex symbiotic relationships as well as the overall health of humans seems to interact in one integrated and interdependent system.

But what about the increased expense in purchasing polycultured beef? Quoting from Joel Salatin of Polyface farm, Pollan writes:

“...whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water- of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

He reminded me (Michael Pollan) that his meat would be considerably cheaper than it is if not for government regulations and the resulting high cost of processing- at least a dollar cheaper per pound. “If we could just level the playing field- take away regulations, the subsidies, and factor in the health care and environmental cleanup costs of cheap food- we could compete on price with anyone.”

It’s true that cheap industrial food is heavily subsidized in many ways such that its price in the supermarket does not reflect its real cost.  p. 243

So I guess one question remains after posting this: has Mike Hsu changed his current practice of eating primarily industrial beef instead of polycultured beef? Well, actually, yes. Tanya and I recently signed up for the Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) with Pawnee Pride Meats that delivers every couple of weeks to the parking lot of Ideal Grocery. Paul and Cyndie Rohrbaugh of Steinauer, NE describe their business in the following way. While they do not use the language of "polyculture," nonetheless I think you will see this is exactly their philosophy:

So, why do we feed hay on our pastures?  We have sent you many pictures of our winter hay feeding but until now, no one has asked why.  That is a good question and we are glad you asked.  Numero uno is sanitation and health.  Feeding hay on clean, dormant grassland or snow reduces/eliminates contamination and disease.  The cattle are more comfortable and much less stressed by spending their days on solid ground rather than muddy lots.  Reason #2.  With our hayspreader we are able to place the hay precisely where we need fertility, manure, and/or animal impact to heal erosion.  Finally,  feeding on the pasture distributes the manure and hay residues, which then become an asset rather than the liability that they present if left in a lot.  The big bonus is that the feeding locations become "hotbeds" of activity for the soil microbes that process the residues to add soil organic matter and nutrients.  

What's the downside?  Actually, I don't see a downside but other ranchers might suggest that it requires daily work as opposed to weekly work.  Also, some would say that it creates more "weeds" in the pasture.  Since all plants are edible to my cattle, I like to encourage weeds for their diversity and additional root action and organic matter.  Pretty good trade, don't you think? Taken from the February 15th, 2012 weekly email of Pawnee Pride Meats

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Brené Brown on The Power of Vulnerability

This is one of the more remarkable videos I've seen in a while; it's a twenty minute commitment but well worth it. My friend and fellow Doctor of Ministry cohort member Jay Simmons sent the video, writing:

In some ways this talk strikes at the heart of my own journey within the waters that I think we all swim.  As obliquely as this may seem to strike our cohort, I also think it we are fond of defining it...integral.  This strums deep chords within me.   It calls up deep desire in real life for authentic living in the reality of the way things are and the hope of the way things ought to be, are enabled to be in Christ, and will one day be in Him.  To me, Mrs. Brown's clarity is threatening to the "worldly" kingdoms my wandering heart gravitates toward, but it is also so liberating and powerful because it is calling me - as I am - to live in truth in the true Kingdom under the true King.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fundamentalism as Secularized Christianity?

As I've been working through Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann's classic work For the Life of the World, I've come across a very interesting section where Schmemann challenges what he would call "secularized Christianity." What is interesting here is that Schmemann's criticism isn't directed towards "liberal," mainline churches that have long since lost a high view of the authority of Scripture but Schmemann points his criticism towards the conservative, fundamentalist, so-called "Bible-believing" churches. Schmemann isn't always easy to read, so this is my best handle on what he is saying here, but to be a "secularist" is to "live in the world as if there were no God." The classic fundamentalist lives "separately" from the world; essentially, he lives "in the world as if there were no God," subsequently his central vision of life in the world is the hope of escaping it. However, as Schmemann writes, "secularism is a lie about the world.... honesty to the Gospel, to the whole Christian tradition,... (which) demands exactly the opposite: to live in the world seeing everything in it as a revelation of God, a sign of His presence, the joy of His coming, the call to communion with Him, the hope for fulfillment in Him" (p. 112). Schmemann finishes this section by saying, "To accept secularism as the truth about the world (as the classic fundamentalist does) is, therefore, to change the original Christian faith so deeply and so radically, that the question must be  asked: do we really speak of the same Christ?"

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Family, a Kingdom and a Vision of Marriage

"...'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue and have dominion . . .' (Gen. 1:25). Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal, or it may not. Behind each window there is a little world going on. How evident this becomes when one is riding on a train at night and passing innumerable lighted windows: behind each one of them the fullness of life is a 'given possibility,' a promise, a vision. This is what the marriage crowns expresses: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, and an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people sit together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other. And after forty odd years, Adam can still turn and see Eve standing behind him, in a unity with himself which in some small way at least proclaims the love of God's Kingdom. In movies and magazines the 'icon' of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind- yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present- and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty."