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Month: November 2009

Food For Thought: Weekly Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posting a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of November 2, 2009:

Why did our food choices change?

What social, economic and political forces triggered this change?

A Wisconsin Farmer’s Response to Michael Pollan, Part III

Monocultural Monopoly

Mr. Pollan decries the “rise of industrial agriculture, which yields a vast monoculture of a tiny group of plants.” The realities of modern American agriculture are thus: In the 1950’s, about 25% of America’s population lived and earned their income on farms engaged in production agriculture. Since then, three trends have emerged and continue to evolve: fewer farms, larger farms, and greater production per farm. This has resulted in efficiencies and economies of scale that currently enable less than 2% of this country’s population to feed the rest of us and then some. Would Mr. Pollan have 1 in 4 Americans now living quit their day jobs and return to production agriculture to earn an income capable of supporting themselves and a family? Would he?

‘Monoculture’ need not be misconstrued as a negative concept. Mr. Pollan’s vegetable garden is, after all, a monoculture of vegetables. Drive through any municipality in America and you will observe a vast monoculture of clipped, fertilized, weeded and watered lawns, medians and parks. Are all these urban monocultures soil tested, scouted for pests, and subject to environmental regulation similar to production agriculture?

Specialization in non-agricultural businesses are accepted. Why not in production agriculture also? Would Mr. Pollan be as successful a writer in his chosen genre’ if he were simultaneously working to produce biographies, cook books, or fiction?

It was interesting to read of Mr. Pollan’s enthusiasm for lambsquarters as a food ingredient representing a desireable form of nutrition. I would challenge him to develop a lucrative commercial market for this plant. I guarantee that American farmers would rise to the occasion and produce lambsquarters in abundance! (Probably in a monoculture).

How Now Contented Cow

Another of Mr. Pollan’s assertions is that only cattle who graze get “leaves” instead of “seeds” in their diets. Some clarification is needed here. Rations fed to ruminant animals, such as cattle, need to be primarily composed of forages. Forages are leafy plants such as alfalfa or grass hay, and corn silage, which is the entire corn plant chopped into pieces. These animals have a marvelous and complex digestive system (four compartments; reticulum, rumen, omasum, abomasum) that allow them to eat and digest feedstuffs humans cannot.

Most of us enjoy the idyllic scene of cattle grazing outdoors in a green field. The reality is that this practice is limited to certain times of the year, especially in Wisconsin and similar climates. Good grazing areas (pastures) require intensive management not unlike fields producing alfalfa. Feeding cattle during times of limited or non-existent pastures (like winter) means farmers need to store feed. While pasturing works for some farmers, the majority continue to harvest feed mechanically, store it in a variety of structures, and then bring it to the cattle.

Dairy and livestock farmers routinely test forages to determine if their animals are getting all the nutrition they need for optimal growth, reproduction, and production. It is not unusual to supplement forages with concentrates (these are the “seeds” like corn or oat kernels, soybeans, linseed, etc., sometimes mixed with minerals). This supplementation is fed only as necessary to ‘balance’ the animal’s rations, enabling a level of production to give farmers a return on their investment while keeping animals healthy. Even grazing animals may require supplementation due to geographic location or soil conditions.

When ‘finishing’ for market, meat producing animals such as beef cattle, the ration is adjusted to include more concentrate as this produces a product in demand by consumers. These rations are seldom, if ever, totally devoid of some forage. Grandpa frequently lectured how the cows needed a ‘scratch’ (fiber) factor in their ration to stay healthy.

Another reality of modern agriculture is that the animals we keep are production units, not pets. I would also argue that the majority of animals kept for production agriculture probably eat more correctly for their species than the majority of people in America.

Moderator’s Note: This is page 3 of 5. Read the rest: A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf

The discussion generated by Mr. Pollan’s book has certainly been an opportunity to explore some issues pertaining to food and food production. The opinions I have ventured here are my own, but are probably shared by others in production agriculture. Here is my own variation on the Pollan Theme:

Eat responsibly. Eat together. Be grateful for abundance. Thank a farmer.
On, Wisconsin!
George H. Roemer
UW-CALS Class of ’70

Free Environmental Film Festival : November 6-8, 2009: Madison, WI

Tales From Planet Earth (TfPE) showcases environmental films from around the world in a three-day festival and several other community engagement events across Wisconsin. The festival — November 6-8, 2009 — thematically journeys across the globe to explore how stories told through film shape our understanding of nature and inspire action on behalf of environmental justice and the diversity of life.

A few of these films are related to food and sustainability and may be of interest to our blog followers:

Papapapá (1995)
Alex Rivera (28 min., color, DVD, US)
Saturday, November 7, Noon
Fredric March Play Circle
In yet another innovative work by Alex Rivera, Papapapá humorously explores immigration issues by comparing the assimilation of immigrant peoples and immigrant foods. In this case, Rivera parallels the migration of a form of potato from Incan Peru north to become part of diets throughout North America with an immensely personal journey following the journeys of his Peruvian father as he migrated from Lima to the United States. Part of a three-film retrospective of Rivera’s work, along with Sleep Dealer and The Sixth Section. Filmmaker scheduled to be in attendance. (Showing with The Sixth Section)

Harvest of Shame (1960)
Fred W. Friendly (60 min., b/w, 16mm, US)
Sunday, November 8, 4:15 pm
UW Cinematheque
Airing just after Thanksgiving in 1960, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly’s Harvest of Shame revealed the plight of migrant agricultural workers in Florida who helped to produce the bountiful harvests Americans had just finished celebrating. Murrow closed the film by noting: “Migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants.” Watching the film almost 50 years later, one doesn’t know whether to admire the film’s forward thinking about this issue or to be depressed that migrants continue to be disenfranchised and at the mercy of public opinion, even as they provide an ever-growing and vital link between the land and our dinner tables.

What’s on Your Plate? (2009)
Catherine Gund (73 min., color, DVD, US)
Saturday, November 7, 10:00 am
From books – such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma – to films – such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney’s King Corn – the American public has received numerous warnings in the last 10 years about the changing global food system and its consequences for public health and the environment. But Catherine Gund raises the question of whether these messages are reaching our most vulnerable food consumers – America’s children. In this rollicking film, Gund follows two New York City pre-teens, Sadie and Safiyah, as they take their own journey across the systems that provide them with food and take charge of their health against the onslaught of unhealthy food choices bombarding them. An official selection of the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, What’s On Your Plate? is a film your whole family should experience together. Filmmakers scheduled to be in attendance.

Our Daily Bread (2005)
Nikolaus Geyrhalter (92 min., color, 35mm, Germany)
Saturday, November 7, 9:30 pm
UW Cinematheque
At the 2007 Tales from Planet Earth, the screening of Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes filled up the theater in only a few minutes. At Tales from Planet Earth in 2009, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread is likely destined for the same fate. Training a similar artistic lens on the global food system, Geyrhalter wordlessly captures extraordinary tableaus and landscapes of astonishing power. From the treatment of livestock to the application of pesticides and the working conditions of laborers, Our Daily Bread lays open for questioning each link of the complex processing chain that connects us to our landscapes via the food on our plates. Winner of 10 film festival awards and official selection of over 50 festivals.

The Hunger Season (2008)
Beadie Finzi (60 min., color, DV, UK and US)
Sunday, November 8, 1:00 pm
First United Methodist Church
When watching news about famines and starving people in foreign countries, we often feel removed from the problem, even as we express pity and regret. Beadie Finzi’s The Hunger Season shatters our illusions of distance, however, revealing the complex interconnections between global economic systems, the hunger for new biofuel sources of energy, global climate change, political unrest, and resulting devastation of drought and famine for millions of people around the world. Tracing the journey of food aid from the fields of Wisconsin farmers to USAID and finally to Swaziland, where Justice, a village leader, struggles to feed his neighbors, Finzi brings home our role in hunger crises and also our ability to help avert such problems. A moving experience, The Hunger Season had its sneak peek world premiere at a Tales from Planet Earth event in October 2008 and is back for the 2009 festival by popular demand. After the film there will be a special meal that will help profile a new national engagement project being built around the film, called “Meal & A Movie in a Box,” which was designed through Tales from Planet Earth’s pilot screening of the film in October 2008.

Keynote: The Economy for the Next Seven Generations
Winona LaDuke (45 min.)
Sunday, November 8, 1:00 pm
Wisconsin Union Theater
Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) is an internationally renowned activist working on issues of sustainable development, renewable energy and food systems. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and is a two time vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader for the Green Party. As Program Director of the Honor the Earth, she works nationally and internationally on issues of climate change, renewable energy, and environmental justice with Indigenous communities. In her own community, she is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, one of the largest reservation based non-profit organizations in the country, and a leader in the issues of culturally based sustainable development strategies, renewable energy and food systems. (Her keynote will be followed by a screening of Lighting the Seventh Fire and a panel on native peoples’ resource issues)

Second Chance: Sea (1976)
Faith Hubley (10.5 min., color, 35mm, US)
The history of the ocean culminates with the present abuse of our most important resource. Do we have a second chance? Part of a retrospective of the award-winning animation of John and Faith Hubley. (Showing with Whither Weather and Children of the Sun)

Whither Weather (1977)
Faith Hubley (10 min., color, 35mm, US)
Whither Weather explores the interplay between Earth life and Earth climate. We see how weather affects food; how food, or lack of it, affects people, and how people, in turn, affect weather. We experience the current eco-catastrophe and wonder whether our tampering will result in a new ice age or in an equally dangerous global heating. Part of a retrospective of the award-winning animation of John and Faith Hubley. (Showing with Second Chance: Sea and Children of the Sun)

Children of the Sun (1960)
John Hubley (10 min., color, 35mm, US)
The story of a healthy child who has enough to eat is juxtaposed with the story of an undernourished child representing three-fourths of the world’s children. The film ends with the United Nations’ commitment to all the children of our planet. Part of a retrospective of the award-winning animation of John and Faith Hubley. (Showing with Second Chance: Sea and Whither Weather)

Tales from Planet Earth announces the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee’s midnight movies during the festival weekend are both on environmental themes . . . from a slightly more playful perspective! They think of it as “Tales After Dark!”:

Soylent Green (1973)
Richard Fleischer (97 min., color, DVD, US)
Saturday, November 7, Midnight
Fredric March Play Circle
The year is 2022. New York City has become overpopulated with 40 million people and pollution has caused the temperature to be risen and all natural resources have been destroyed, leaving 40 million people starving. The Soylent Company has create a new food product, Soylent Green. In the overpopulated and polluted New York City, police detective Thorn is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of an corporate official of the Soylent company, William R. Simonson. Thorn’s investigation into Simonson’s murder leads him to uncover a conspiracy in the Soylent company and the Soylent Green food product itself, where Thorn uncovers the horrible truth about Soylent Green. (from IMDb)