Professor takes aim at ag misconceptions

A talk Thursday night emphasized the need to bring 'sound science, facts and figures' to bear.

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WALLA WALLA -- Jude Capper has a beef with Michael Pollan, author of bestsellers such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

"I was glad I was out of town," the assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University said of Pollan's recent visit to WSU. On Thursday night, in a visit sponsored by the Walla Walla Cattlemen's Association, Capper offered a free seminar at Knight's of Columbus Hall.

In the talk, "Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production," Capper aimed to dispel misconceptions about agriculture with "sound science, facts and figures."

The problem with Pollan, according to Capper, is that by 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts a 50 percent population growth.

Though Pollan writes really well and offers some points that make sense, Capper said, his work does not address this growth, offering a fine model only if we had more time and the same population as 100 years ago.

Pollan's work, for Capper, represents the problematic myth of the "good old days." In romanticizing the past, people overlook tremendous improvements. If carbon footprint is properly measured, according to Capper, dairy's carbon footprint actually has decreased by 41 percent since 1944. This is because there are fewer, much more productive cows.

A single cow's carbon footprint is misleading, ultimately not indicative of the dairy industry's footprint, since cows now are bigger, consuming more feed and producing more waste. Instead, the metric should be the product, in this case, pounds of milk.

By this measure, 60 percent more milk is being produced by 60 percent fewer cows, a big improvement. For beef, productivity has improved by 32 percent, but Capper sees a huge opportunity for improvement.

Grass-fed systems were another of Capper's points. Corn-finished beef production requires fewer days on feed and fewer resources, she said. Where grass-finished cows require about 118,000 megajoules of energy, corn-finished cows require only about 40,000 megajoules of energy, she said.

At this point, Capper reminded the audience that she is not "pro" either system, just pro-science. She takes issue with portrayals of agriculture that rely on misleading statistics to make their cases -- for instance, generalized statistics that would portray a feedlot in the U.S. as having the same impact as one in South America.

It is productivity and technology that cuts environmental impact, she emphasized.

Food miles, the distance a product travels to reach a consumer, was the last of the myths addressed. Food miles ignore productivity, making consumers believe driving to a nearby farm rather than a grocery chain is best, while that is not necessarily so.

During the question-and-answer period at the talk's end, Capper was thanked by a woman frustrated by media portrayals of the dairy industry. In particular, she cited a critical picture in the media of a cow in the milking parlor, "as if that's where they live."

And Pollan came up again. "It frightens me that someone trusts someone who writes a book more than a beef producer," Capper said. MORE INFO

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