Keeping up with demand for food production

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John Lawrence Hanson, guest columnist

A chicken dinner was once such a special treat. The lore of 1928 presidential campaign associated that culinary luxury with the prosperity promised by Herbert Hoover. Today eating chicken is commonplace. For any restaurant, any home, or even any school, some type of chicken is on the menu. Norway has its own version of food that went from special sunday meal to everyday.

A lot of animals in a small area holds the promise of profit as well as peril. Iowans are familiar with the economic and social costs of large-scale animal confinement operations. Our agriculture output is extraordinary. Iowa is consistently among the top two states in corn, soybeans, pigs, eggs, red meat, and total agricultural exports . Through pluck and ingenuity, Iowans have turned a demanding climate into a feast for the world.

The flip side to the immense economic output has been a equal contribution of manure, nutrient pollution, and soil erosion. And recently, the horrors of disease, despite the fact that confined livestock are fed a steady diet laced with antibiotics. Swine diseases ravaged herds throughout the nation. Last season, Iowa lost over 31 million agricultural birds to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. These are real costs. The costs to Iowans water quality are also legion. Our failures to comply with the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are the sources of so much sorrow and social friction.

At first glance, Norway would seem to have little in common with Iowa. Over 90% of Iowa land is used for agriculture , Norway has less than 3% . Yet, how the bounty of the earth is produced is a topic of similarities.

Animal welfare laws in Norway prohibit mass confinements of cattle and swine. Cows have a right to pasture, for example. I guess Norwegians have a soft spot for their fellow mammals. That striking difference aside, egg and chicken production is moving towards the American model of mass confinement. Surprisingly, the sector of Norway’s biological economy most like Iowa is fish.

In the cold salty waters of the Norwegian coasts swim millions upon millions of salmon. Well, they don’t swim much because they are confined in small netted cages. The daily feed is transported to them and then they are carted off to slaughter like so many fattened hogs. The clever use of natural resources has changed a meal of salmon from luxury to commonplace, Norwegian chicken.

Also surprising is that Iowa will have an increasing role in this expanding endeavor. A fellow Fulbright Scholar, Nathaniel Sibinga, is among the many scientists studying ways to substitute a majority of the fish-based feed with soybeans. Someday you might very well enjoy your Sunday laks or daily sushi with salmon imported from Norway, grown on Iowa soy.

Another market for soybeans is more money for Iowa. But it is also another potential cause for our poor water quality due to production demands. Like massive and walled chicken barracks, the salmon are out of sight and out of mind to most. The welfare of salmon isn’t discussed in general society, a silence repeated in Iowa.

Concentrated slamon brought profit but also ecological problems that can’t be solved through high technology and science. The salmon are susceptible to illness, they spread disease and parasites to wild fish. Their concentrated wastes upset the water quality and marine life of the fjords and skerries. But since the worst of the effects happened far from the population centers the production continues as is. The special sunday dinner now enjoyed any day suppresses criticisms. Hunger may be the best sauce, but a full belly is an equally powerful sedative for critique.

In the 21st century animal welfare, ecological health, antibiotic resistance, and higher costs from carbon will force us to change the way we produce and consume food. This will be a challenge that both Norwegians and Iowans will have to address. Once again, the 21st century will test the limits of intellect, humanity, and democracy in Norway as well as Iowa. The question is when? or Will it be a decision we choose to address or one forced upon us by circumstance?

John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., is a teacher at Linn-Mar High School on a Fulbright Scholarship in Norway for the academic year. He blogs about his experience at johnlhanson.wordpress.com

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