Always Look on the Bright Side of Pesticide: Big Ag Gives Us the “Real Dirt on Farming”

    Written for my La Terre Noire blog in 2015

    On the home page of a local feed and farming supply store, I recently came across a prominently displayed 50 page booklet, entitled “The Real Dirt on Farming”. Remembering the excellent 2005 documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, about maverick organic farmer John Peterson, I had a look at this publication. It purported to answer questions Canadians have about farming, and to “debunk some myths”. Since I keep a small flock of laying hens on our farm, naturally I turned to the page on laying hens to see what it would say. I nearly fell off my chair when I read the following:

    “Many laying hens are raised in cages. Why? Modern laying hens are descended from jungle fowl, that live in small groups under tree roots. This means it is natural for hens to want to live closely together with other birds, and in small, enclosed spaces – reminiscent of those ancient tree roots that made them feel safe and protected.”

    Wow. Seriously? Is that the best they can come up with? Chickens are basically like gophers? Does this jungle fowl look like a gopher, scurrying around under tree roots?:

    I searched around to try to find where the writers of this booklet had come up with this particular justification for the mass indoor confinement of chickens, and the only reference I could find was a publication by Humane Society International, in which it describes the nesting behavior of the jungle fowl as follows:

    “Under natural conditions, hens leave the group and find a secluded nest site when they are ready to lay their eggs. Wild jungle fowl nest in tall patches of grass, which provide cover for their broods. They may scratch out a shallow bed in the ground or under the roots of a tree, and line the “scrape” with vegetation and feathers.”

    In other words, they may occasionally make a nest under the roots of a tree – but only after leaving the group, and only for the three weeks a year it takes to brood a clutch of eggs.

    The Humane Society International publication goes on to say that, “Being extensively innervated and connected to the autonomic nervous system, the tip of the beak is very sensitive, and has neural receptors for touch, taste, and temperature.” Funny how the “Real Dirt” authors didn’t quote that one in their section on beak trimming, which they claim is done to “prevent laying hens from hurting each other.” The fact of the matter is that when you cram thousands of birds in all together, some of them are going to peck others to death, unless you remove the pointy end of their beaks. Give them more space, and this becomes a non-issue.

    The fact that such a laughable and ill-founded claim is made about chickens calls into question everything else in this booklet.

    I did a little more digging into the “Real Dirt” to find out who was behind this thing, and quickly found it was published – and inserted into 360,000 copies of the Globe and Mail this spring, among other places – by the Farm and Food Care Foundation. Oh, beware the vaguely named organization! The FFCF’s stated goal is to “enhance public confidence in food and farming in Canada”. Its board of directors includes people from Nutreco Canada (a livestock feed company that was recently fined $40,000 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for putting a medicated ingredient into a swine feed without listing it on the label, and for not providing instructions for the withdrawal period necessary prior to shipping the animals to slaughter), Farm Credit Canada, Agribiz (a agricultural communications firm), Greyridge Eggs (the second-largest egg grading company in Canada, and repeatedly found shipping leaking, dirty, and stale eggs to market), a former CEO of Adfarm (an agricultural marketing company), RBC, Cargill Value Added Meats (Cargill being the largest privately held corporation in the US), and the Canadian Animal Health Institute (“the trade association representing the developers, manufacturers and distributors of animal pharmaceuticals, biologics, feed additives and animal pesticides in Canada”).

    The FFCF has also received donations of $250,000 from Burnbrae Farms, Canada’s largest egg grader, and $50,000 from the Egg Farmers of Ontario, who have been one of the foundation’s most consistent donors. You’d think with that much egg money behind them they could spin better tales than jungle fowl living happily under ancient tree roots.

    The sponsors of the “Real Dirt” publication include Croplife Canada (a trade association of the world’s largest biotech and pesticide businesses: Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, BASF, etc.), the Council for Biotechnology Information, and many other mainstays of the agrifood establishment.

    The picture is now coming into focus; Big Ag, concerned about the negative press they’ve been receiving of late from documentaries like Food Inc., the local food movement, organics, etc., has decided to fight back with a glowing portrait of how everything that the industrial food system is doing is just great, not a problem in sight, and that in fact those fringe guys – the organic and local farmers – are not doing as good a job.

    This is actually a good sign, if you believe in local, organic food; as the saying goes about social change movements, first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you. It would seem the movement of local and organic agriculture has graduated past the first two steps in the evolution towards a new paradigm in Canada. They must be afraid that they’re losing the battle for hearts and minds, as this poll is but one example of.

    In reading through “The Real Dirt on Farming”, three things strike me. First, there’s a ton of spin. That’s to be expected. More on that later.

    Second, it does seem to be an at least somewhat sincere attempt to inform the public about what modern farming is like – in some ideal sense. Too often modern agribiz hides behind bucolic caricatures of red wooden barns and roosters crowing on fence posts; this booklet instead embraces the scientific advances that have remade farming in the past 60 years. But instead of charming us with agrarian visions, it instead tries to dazzle us with the “cool and funky” technology being applied on some farms today. The message is that science is cool, therefore biotechnology – which is really cutting edge science – must be really cool. And to be against industrial agriculture, you’ve got to be anti-science. I don’t think this is spin; I think this is how people working in the industrial agriculture industry actually tend to think. I think many of them are genuinely perplexed as to why people seem to be turning against them, and the “Real Dirt” is their attempt to respond sincerely.

    Third, although the booklet usually maintains a convivial, upbeat tone, occasionally its fangs come out when provoked by some particularly irksome issue. Take this passage, for instance:

    “Factory farm is an inflammatory term created by anti-farming activists and is not one that is used by farmers.”

    So to criticise some types of farms makes you against all farms? Is there not a fundamental difference between a farm whose motivating goal is to produce as much pork for as little money as possible, and a farm whose motivating goals are to give their pigs a good life, while producing healthy meat in the most sustainable way? I’m anti the first farm, but pro the second. And I think “factory farm” is an apt descriptor of the former farm, because it views its pigs no differently than widgets to be churned out in a factory, while the latter farm sees its pigs as living, sentient beings with needs and wants, and as part of the larger agricultural ecosystem. But I don’t like to be too “inflammatory”, so I use the word “industrial” instead of “factory” to differentiate farms like the former from farms like the latter.

    But watch out, if you’re not labelled an “anti-farming activist”, the “Real Dirt” calls you an “anti-technology activist” on page 33 if you oppose GMO’s. The booklet’s authors clearly have their backs up about activists, as the following quote reveals:

    “Activists of any kind are not usually interested in finding solutions, but prefer to focus on problems and dramatic examples to generate funds and support for their organizations.”

    This is a common trope – that activists are only in it for the money. It’s an absurd Orwellian reversal of reality. Someone who advocates for a cause – 99.9% of the time in an unpaid capacity – simply because they believe in it, we call an “activist”. Whereas someone who works as a lobbyist, or who puts out publications like “The Real Dirt on Farming”, we call a “strategic communications consultant”. Here’s the above quote rewritten to describe a communications consultant instead of an activist:

    “Communications consultants of any kind are not usually interested in finding problems, but prefer to focus on what looks good and reassuring examples to generate funds and support for their clients.”

    I think that’s much closer to the truth.


    I’ll now dig into some of the specifics “The Real Dirt on Farming” touches on, including organics, local food, food waste, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, livestock feed, climate change, bee colony collapse disorder, sustainability, and animal welfare (“The Real Dirt” is nothing if not thorough). This booklet claims to have gone “to fellow farmers and experts in the field to find the answers” to these issues, but I’m a farmer, and they didn’t ask me. Nor, I suspect, did they ask any farmers like me. So this is my chance to give some of the answers I’ve found over the years, both from secondary sources and my own farming experience.

    One of my favourite headings in the “Real Dirt” is “USING TECHNOLOGY TO OUTSMART MOTHER NATURE”. I couldn’t come up with a better phrase to describe the type of thinking that typifies industrial ag. “Nature”, as defined as “everything not human or created by humans” is a problem, to be overcome with our superior brains and the tools we make with them. Fields must be sterilized of all other life before our chosen crop and the blend of synthesized chemical fertilizers that support it are injected into the dead soil. Contrast this with the emergent paradigm of organic and local (what some are calling regrarian or agroecological), where the act of producing food from landscapes attempts to cooperate with and integrate into natural ecosystems. “Mother Nature” in this paradigm is seen as a supportive parent who will help us realize our goals so long as we respect her rules. As celeb farmer Joel Salatin says, “We are not anti-technology. What we like is technology that allows us to better bio-mimic the patterns [of nature].”

    It’s safe to say that Joel didn’t have a hail cannon in mind when he spoke about the kind of technology he likes, but it’s clear the authors of the “Real Dirt” thought we’d all find it pretty cool:

    “A technology called a hail cannon is used in some orchards. It shoots sound waves into the air every six seconds whenever there is the threat of hail and breaks up the hailstones that are forming in the atmosphere.”

    Yeah, that sounds like a real good idea.

    …And back to eggs

    The section on eggs, as you might expect from the donors to this publication, is particularly rich with information. “Virtual farm tours” are offered, at the click of a link, giving insights into different hen systems, from conventional to free-range/organic. On the free-range tour, you can click to see the outdoor hen run, which shows a mown grassy strip all but devoid of chickens.

    A heading asks rhetorically, “Where are all of the birds?”, followed by:

    “We’ve just told you that the hens are allowed outside, in the summer, on this free range farm between May and September 15 and you can see that the barn door is open. So the million dollar question is, if there are 7,400 hens living in this barn, and the door’s open, why aren’t they all outside? In actual fact, although they have access to the outdoors, Henk explains that the majority of the birds prefer the comfort of their barn. After all, in the heat of the summer, the barn’s temperature is kept comfortable using large fans. The birds’ feed and water is also inside the barn as are their nesting boxes.”

    That’s funny, why do my chickens like going outside so much, then?

    Maybe it has something to do with another tid-bit of information given in this virtual tour: that the birds are not allowed outside if the temperature is below 24° Celcius. I had to reread that several times the first time I saw it, because I couldn’t believe it. I’ve noticed from my own chickens that they don’t really love being out in the heat of the day, and here was a standard that doesn’t allow chickens outside unless it’s already pretty hot. That alone would explain why not many hens want to go outside when the doors are opened to them. Oh yeah, and they’re also not allowed outside if it’s raining, in extreme weather conditions, or if a flock of wild birds are nearby (they might catch avian flu from them). In other words, they are very rarely allowed access to the outdoors, and only when it’s hot and sunny. Chickens, like most animals, are creatures of habit, and if they aren’t accustomed to going outside, they won’t want to. Also, a bare mown strip offers little of interest for them.

    In a tour of a conventional egg farm, we hear the claim again that, “chickens instinctively prefer to live close to each other in flocks. In my barn, the pens are designed to mimic this natural instinct.”

    From my general observations about my hens, I can say that when given the space, chickens’ natural instinct is not to clump up together in tight flocks, as this egg farmer would have us believe, but instead to disperse across the landscape as widely as they are able to, within a certain range from their home. There is nothing natural about the industrial model for producing eggs, unless you believe that maloney about ancient tree roots.

    In a section entitled, “Why can’t they have more space?”, the following justification is offered:

    “…every creature has different needs. For example, a bat chooses to live upside down in a dark cave…[or] if you put a group of calves in a very large open barn, research shows they choose to sleep very close to each other and against the walls or gates for a sense of ‘protection’ or warmth.”

    This reasoning conflates how an animal sleeps with how it spends its waking hours. It’s like saying that humans like spending all their time in dark rooms because that’s where they like to sleep.

    It doesn’t have to be like this, and it can be a lot better than the in-name-only free-range system profiled. Here’s but one example from a farm in Texas: Coyote Creek Farm.

    Pastured poultry isn’t just for small farms – this is large scale, feed-the-masses agriculture. And they’re doing it right. Sure, we can’t do this year round in Canada, but that’s no excuse to not do it from April to November.


    When it comes to organics, it’s interesting to note that the organic section in the “Real Dirt” falls under the “food security and affordability” chapter, a theme that the final paragraph in this section zeroes in on:

    “Organic production is not intended to become the only way we produce food. Not only would most of the world’s population not be able to afford organic food because it costs more to produce, but with our global population still growing, we simply don’t have the land, water and other natural resources available to grow the amount of food that we will need organically.”

    For a good, succinct refutation of everything above, see this article from the Rodale Institute (hey, why reinvent the wheel?). Besides that, the whole “Feed the World” line is little more than Big Ag’s way of scaring us all into accepting their latest technology, which offers little benefit except to their bottom lines. We are already more than feeding the world, since we waste approximately 50% of all the food we grow (one of the few good points in the “Real Dirt” is that it mentions this fact, although it quotes figures of one quarter to one third wasted). The sad fact that so many people worldwide are currently malnourished or starving is about economics and distribution, not production. What we need in order to feed the world are not better biotechnologies, but better social/political/economic technologies. But those can’t be patented, so few are interested in developing them.

    The “Real Dirt” circles back to the land argument later in the text, with this “Quick Fact”:

    “If Canadian farmers stopped using crop protection products and plant biotechnology, we’d need to turn 37 million more acres into agricultural land to generate the same production we do today – that’s roughly equal to the total cropped acreage of Saskatchewan. Thanks to plant science tools, farmers are protecting valuable forests, wetlands and other wildlife habitats.”

    If you’re wondering what “crop protection products” are, by the way, they mean pesticides. Gotta love that euphemism. When you click on the end note provided for this quote, you’re taken to who else but the CropLife Canada website (remember them? lobbyists for Monsanto et al), where you can find the same quote word for glorious word. I guess asking “fellow farmers” is really a euphemism for cutting and pasting from your sponsor’s websites.

    CropLife crops up again in this recent Toronto Star article on how Ontario is phasing out neonicotinoid pesticides because of widespread evidence they are killing bees. The “Real Dirt’s” take on this issue is predictable:

    “Some people believe neonics are contributing to bee death but there are conflicting views and scientists around the world are working hard to determine what is causing bee mortality. A key factor in bee mortality in recent years has been a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor which has been devastating to Canadian bee colonies.”

    They make it sound like these mites are a new problem for Canadian beekeepers, but in reality this mite has been in Canada since 1989. Colony Collapse Disorder only became a “thing” around 2006. The mites are often associated with CCD, but not always. And it could be that the mites gain a better foothold in colonies already weakened by other stressors, such as pesticides. A 2015 article in the journal Science that reviewed 170 studies on CCD concluded:

    “Bees of all species are likely to encounter multiple stressors during their lives, and each is likely to reduce the ability of bees to cope with the others. A bee or bee colony that appears to have succumbed to a pathogen may not have died if it had not also been exposed to a sublethal dose of a pesticide and/or been subject to food stress (which might in turn be due to drought or heavy rain induced by climate change, or competition from a high density of honey bee hives placed nearby)… a strong argument can be made that it is the interaction among parasites, pesticides, and diet that lies at the heart of current bee health problems.”

    The section on organics begins with this line: “There is no evidence that organically produced food is healthier or safer than food that isn’t certified organic.” While it is true that there is no scientific consensus yet as to whether organic food is healthier, there have been a number of studies that suggest it may be (The Organic Centre offers a number of scientific articles on organics). Organic food has often been found to contain higher levels of antioxidants; the idea is that when plants have to fight off pests themselves, they produce these compounds, which are beneficial to us. There is also no doubt that organic food contains significantly lower levels of pesticides.

    Sure, the “Real Dirt” echoes Health Canada in that the amount of pesticide residues on non-organic food is below dangerous levels, but no one really knows the effects of all these toxins in minute quantities when ingested day after day for years. To me, the whole idea of spraying toxins and carcinogens (glyphosate, aka Roundup – the world’s most used herbicide, and jewel in the crown of Monsanto – was recently labelled “probably carcinogenic” by the WHO) on our food just seems like a really bad idea. And it doesn’t even work. Bugs and weeds just develop immunity to them. And they kill off all the beneficial insects and soil microorganisms – and most of the critters out there are beneficial. And they’re simply not necessary – a little know-how about how to tackle the weeds and bugs knocks them back to a level where our crops outcompete them. It may take a few years of trial and error to figure it out on your land, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard. And just imagine how much easier it would be if all the resources that are currently funnelled into pesticides went into figuring out how to ju-jitsu pests organically?

    Also, no one disputes that pesticides present real dangers to the farmers and workers tasked with applying them. And it’s well established that organic agriculture produces significantly less greenhouse gasses, because pesticides and chemical fertilizers are costly in petroleum to produce, and organic ag tends to sequester more carbon in the soil. And…I could go on and on.

    Antibiotics & Hormones

    The “Real Dirt” tackles the issue of antibiotic use in livestock by trying to turn the blame on human misuse of these vitally important drugs:

    “Antimicrobial resistance is a concern for everyone. Some people point the finger at agriculture, but it’s important to remember that as humans, we have a major role to play here as well. We should only take antibiotics for conditions or problems where antibiotics will actually help…”

    True enough – antibiotics are overused in humans. But at least we’re taking them to try to treat an actual problem. About 50% of all the antibiotics consumed in the US are given to farm animals, the vast majority of which is not given to treat a specific infection, but sub-therapeutically as growth enhancers. The “problem” producers are trying to treat is that their pigs and chickens just aren’t growing as fast as they could be. We’re not sure why, but feeding antibiotics to livestock increases their feed conversion efficiency, meaning producers can grow bigger animals faster with less feed, improving their bottom line, and making cheaper meat for the masses. The problem with this win-win situation is that the more we use antibiotics, the faster we lose them, because bacteria evolve rapidly and develop resistance to the drugs. So we’re losing valuable life-saving drugs so that we can pay a bit less for our meat.

    Hormones added to beef cattle tell a similar story. They make cattle grow faster, which reduces costs for everybody. The evidence of harm to humans from this practice appears scant, but the hormones do end up in waterways and are having a detrimental effect on ecosystems.

    Still, why do we insist on screwing with nature like this? Why isn’t it enough to focus on feeding a cow the best possible feed, keeping stress at a minimum, breeding good genetics, and other measures like that to ensure good weight gain? We know there will be no negative consequences to stuff like this. But when we start pushing things, with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, GMO’s, and the like, we’re going into uncharted territory, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences lying in wait for us. And why? So we can pay less for our food. But my bet is that we’ll pay more for it in the end when we go down this road. Someone pays the price for cheap food.

    Feeding Livestock

    A section on “Farm Animals and the Environment” begins with this odd statement:

    “Some people incorrectly believe that Canadian farm animals use food needed by people. Livestock doesn’t compete with people for food grains.”

    It then goes on to talk about all the waste sources of food that are given to animals “in countries without extra grain”. It was hard for me at first to decipher this unsubstantiated statement, but reading between the lines a bit, I think what they’re trying to say is that Canada has plenty of grain, so we needn’t worry about feeding most of it to livestock.

    A common criticism of raising farm animals is that it takes on average 6 kg of plant protein to make 1 kg of animal protein. The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population. If we fed that grain directly to people, it would be enough to feed 800 million more people. (How come this idea never comes up when we talk about “feeding the world”?) The critique is usually not framed so much as humans and livestock “competing” with each other for grain, as one of wasteful use of resources, especially when you consider that Canadians already eat too much meat. But the “Real Dirt” skirts around this issue by saying we’re not really “competing”, so all’s good.

    But we are most definitely competing with wild animals for food, and when we plow up millions of acres of land to grow crops to feed to our domesticated animals, we are depriving wild animals of habitat and food.

    I believe in eating some meat, but ideally the animal the meat comes from would have eaten grass from a natural grassland or savanna (i.e. not deforested land); in rocky, hilly terrain not suitable for field crops; and/or eaten food that would otherwise go to waste (e.g. kitchen scraps fed to pigs or chickens). Cattle grazed in pastures like the one described above can do so without depriving other species from occupying different niches in the same ecosystem, and actually have an overall beneficial effect on the ecosystem.

    Later in the same section we are asked if we knew “that greenhouse gas is not actually gas coming from a greenhouse?” Umm…yeah? Who is this publication addressed to, five year olds? The booklet goes on to claim that “scientists estimate agriculture produces 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s the lowest estimate I’ve ever read. Most credible estimates put agriculture’s contribution around 25%; the only sector that causes more climate change is electricity and heat production (transport is only about 15%). Livestock alone are estimated to contribute 18%.


    Early on in the “Real Dirt”, the authors invent their own definition of sustainability. It consists, according to them, of the principles of “food safety, human health, economics and food affordability, environment and animal welfare.” It’s from publications like this that the word “sustainability” has become one of the most abused in the English lexicon. I think when most people think about what sustainable agriculture means to them, they think of production practices that don’t deplete resources faster than they can replenish. What does food safety and affordability have to do with that? And as worthwhile a goal as animal welfare is, the concept of sustainability doesn’t enter into it.

    But it’s clear that this effort to redefine sustainability serves the interests behind this booklet. “Sustainable” farming is farming that produces cheap food. Tough choices must be made to find the proper balance between “affordability” and everything else.

    But the paradigm that I, and a growing number of other farmers, live in doesn’t see these priorities as competing, but as working together (well, most of them – more on that in a sec). The magical formula that we see at play on our own farms is that food grown close to home, organically, is safer, more nutritious, more profitable for the small farmer, and better for the environment. Animals treated well tend to be all these things too.

    The one thing that can’t come along for the ride is cheap food. Cheap food undermines all the above, and it’s really about the only thing the industrial food system is concerned with (and, let’s face it, damn good at).

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t have affordable food. Canadians currently spend less (about 10% of our spending) on food than anyone but the Americans, yet we are one of the richest nations. We can afford to pay a bit more for food that is healthier, treats animals better, better supports local farmers and agricultural workers, and is actually a net benefit to the environment. You get what you pay for, and right now, we’re not paying for any of these things.

    The multinationals behind publications like the “Real Dirt on Farming” support the status quo. But they can’t do it without all of us buying their stuff. Stop giving them your money and support your local farmers, and watch how agriculture – and our culture – changes.