South Dakota State University (SDSU) was the place to be Oct. 19, when investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser spoke to a full house on campus. Schlosser is well known for his books, “Chew On This” and “Fast Food Nation,” as well as his documentary film, “Food Inc.,” which have successfully used sensationalism, half-truths and hype to scare consumers and portray modern agriculture as a villain.
Schlosser’s visit was sponsored by SDSU’s Journalism and Mass Communication Department, which apparently brought him in for his reporting skills. However, the majority of people in attendance at his presentation were from SDSU’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, and they were ready and willing to defend agriculture against an activist coming to town.
“Fast-food advertising shows really happy, thin people having fun; as a result, in the U.S. we have a deep relationship with food,” said Schlosser. “Most Americans have never visited a farm, met a farmer, or have any idea of what happens on a farm. Mass culture tells us to be thin, but promotes food to make you fat. As fast food has increased, so has chronic disease. Obesity causes cancer, diabetes and heart disease. One-third of South Dakotans will develop diabetes because of being overweight. South Dakota ranks in the top third of the U.S. in diabetes.”
Schlosser went on to criticize the state’s industrial agriculture system, including genetically modified seeds, manure-management systems, feedlot conditions and antibiotic use in livestock. Not surprisingly, the question-and-answer session became quite heated. Following the presentation, one student reflected on his thought-provoking speech.
Senior agronomy student Trent Kubik responds, “I must say I was very shocked that Eric Schlosser was going to come to a very agricultural-based school like SDSU to speak. What was much more shocking was that our journalism department brought him here because of his journalistic skills. Much as I expected, there was a very large crowd on hand for his speech. What was really exciting was the large showing of agriculture students we had in attendance. At the end of his speech, the farm kid in me could not be held back from questioning some of his statements."
In his comments to Schlosser, Kubik talked about Norman Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution” and a Nobel Prize winner, who is credited with feeding over a billion people who otherwise would have starved. Borlaug was dedicated to studying plants and how to better grow them and discovered that organic farming can only feed 4 billion people, which unfortunately 5 billion short of the estimated population of the planet by 2050.
At the end of their back-and-forth conversation, Schlosser waved up his hands and told Kubik, “Let’s agree to disagree.”
By the way, Schlosser is a big advocate for knowing what you’re eating, yet admitted to eating at Nick’s Hamburgers, a local diner in town, where he said, “I don’t even want to know what they cook that beef in.”
Perhaps a little contradictory? Yet, Schlosser has raked in millions using his half-baked theories and frightening stories. How can agriculture balance out the conversation? What methods work best in sharing our story. I may sound like a squeaky wheel, but when will each and every one of us make a conscious effort to stand up and represent ourselves? It’s about time us ranchers join in on the conversation.