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FIRST-PERSON: Antibiotics & our future: A Christian farmer's response
Shane Burchfiel
Posted on May 25, 2012

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March 10, 2014
May 25, 2012
DYERSBURG, Tenn. (BP) -- Ask any child to draw a farm, and they might use their Crayolas to produce an image that consists of a red barn, an apple tree on a green hill, and a cow or horse in the field. Unfortunately, this image of a "farm" doesn't change much into adulthood, and public perception of modern agriculture is often inaccurate.

Discussing the ethical, environmental and moral issues of producing our food and clothing is important. However, I would respectfully challenge some of the claims made in a recent Baptist Press piece.

First, blaming cows for obesity, antibiotic resistance and the loss of forests for corn production is an effective but fear-based tactic. The United States produces roughly half of the world's corn supply, but we are not tearing down forests to accomplish this. Farmers are producing higher yields on fewer acres than ever before. Where exactly are all these forests that are being destroyed for more corn acres?

Obesity is a problem, but the blame lies more squarely on gluttony and laziness than it does on cows and corn. Likewise, antibiotic resistance can be a cause for concern, but are we not already the most over-medicated society on the planet? The bigger problem lies in over-usage of antibiotics among people.

Second, modern agriculture is not in defiance of nature. Farmers are not shaking their fists at God going against His natural order. A full 98 percent of all farms are family farms. Farmers are working in concert with nature. We use fertilizers that are mined from the earth or come from animals, herbicides that are derived from plants, and insect protection commonly known as "Bt" that is naturally occurring in the soil.

Some people often make the claim that farmers are poisoning the environment. But why would we poison the land from which we derive our livelihood? We are stewards of the land. Part of our job is to create a cleaner, healthier environment. If we are destroying it, by default we destroy our own profession. Farmers strive to operate in an environmentally friendly manner. Our air you can breathe, our water you can drink. Why is it that when a person goes on a mission trip to a Third World country they dare not drink the water?

A good friend of mine used this analogy: "I raise pigs. I grow corn to feed them. The pigs eat the corn and produce manure. I take that manure and put it onto my corn field(s) as fertilizer. I don't know how you get any greener than that." Yet, he would be criticized because his pigs live in a barn, or because of the odor when he spreads manure. Is this not a realistic, sustainable, and feasible model?

Third, Scripture is quite clear in the distinction of humans and animals. God created humans in His likeness and gave them dominion over animals. This is not to say that animals should be treated cruelly, nor is it saying that animals are equal to humans.

Animals need food, water, protection, and yes, sometimes they need medicine. Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, told USA Today that without antibiotics, animals would become sick, and food prices would rise.

Until innovations occur in agriculture that enable us to move away from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) without sacrificing production, I'm comfortable with a free market driving demand. If that means chickens and pigs live in barns/houses in addition to having access to fresh grass and the open sunshine in order to maintain an abundant and affordable food supply, I'm not overly concerned with the risks that may or may not be associated with that.

Fourth, this discussion is often framed in terms of an "us versus them" dialogue when it doesn't need to be. Why is the conversation so quickly reduced to organic vs. commercial, industry vs. family, or big vs. small?

The reality is there are more than 6 billion people on this planet and they eat. Population experts tell us that by 2050 global population will double, meaning farmers will have to produce more food in the coming years than we have in the history of civilization.

The real question becomes: Can we continue to feed people in a sustainable model that is environmentally friendly? Yes we can, but we are naive to think the organic (a term so loosely defined it is devoid of real meaning), green movement or community gardens is going to carry us there alone.

Finally, the average consumer has no idea of the costs involved in producing agriculture. Literally, thousands of dollars are buried in the ground in seed, fertilizer and crop protection products. And it's all for naught if it doesn't rain.

People continue to have a disconnect between the reality of producing food on the family farm and the romanticized, biased picture as portrayed by documentaries such as "Food Inc." Farmers make up less than 2 percent of the population of the United States. That means 98 percent of Americans will rely on a 2 percent minority to provide food and clothing, which by the way, we are doing despite overbearing regulation. The problem with the agri-ecology/green movement is that they are radically inconsistent. Its proponents will harp about free-range, grass-fed only beef, no pesticides, only buy local etc. Yet they will walk around with bought meat from a local producer while holding a $5 cup of Starbucks coffee made with beans imported from another country.

Modern farming families are innovators, consistently working towards safer, more efficient methods of food and fiber production. This is the task the American population has demanded of us. We plant and pray. We are stewards of the land.
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Shane Burchfiel is a 2011 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and works on a family farm in Dyer County, Tenn., where he raises cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and manages a timber tract.
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