Dr. John Peirce, veteran veterinarian, would like you to listen to the perspective of conventional beef producers. So would I. But I would also appreciate it if he himself spent more time listening. To see what I mean, read on.
Peirce wants his readers to know “what they don’t tell you” about the U.S. beef industry. “They” are the industry’s “critics,” “you” are consumers who object to how the industry operates, and what you need to know that they don’t tell you is accurate information about how conventional beef is produced, information that the author believes will lead you to view the industry more sympathetically, maybe even to admire those who work in it.
Being among the author’s “you,” I approached skeptically. But I kept an open mind and thus learned some valuable things and adjusted my attitude on some matters. Unfortunately, I also found that the book was marred by a failure to engage fairly those who disagree with him and by poor editing. (Disclosure: I am a professional book-manuscript editor.)
The first forty pages of the book blend autobiography, the history of U.S. beef production, and a description of the problem the author intends to address. He grew up on a ranch and has served beef producers for decades as a vet and consultant. He portrays beef producers past and present as smart, honest, hardworking people who love their work.
The rest of the book discusses the following:
- how beef cattle are raised
- how beef is processed from slaughter to grocery store
- how much beef is eaten in the U.S., and in what forms
- how it’s aged, stored, and graded
- how and why it’s irradiated
- the nutritional value of conventionally raised beef
- the difference (rather simplistically stated) between “conventionally fed,” “naturally finished,” “grass-fed,” and “organic”
- the personal character of beef producers
- use of data collection to improve management
- how industry critics and the media affect public perception of the industry
- various environmental issues relating to the industry, including climate change.
Peirce argues that knowing about the character of beef producers, what they really do, and why (as opposed to what the media tell us) should lead readers to admire and support them. Unfortunately, “critics” have misinformed many consumers and manipulated their emotions, he says, with the result that they wrongly find fault with conventional producers and instead favor grass-fed, certified-humane, or organic beef.
The author believes, therefore, that consumers’ objections to beef industry practices and their pursuit of alternative meat sources are essentially a communication problem. Most U.S. citizens don’t know beef producers, but he does. So if he represents their perspective to his readers and encourages them to research the matter for themselves, readers will come to admire the conventional beef industry and lose their enthusiasm for the alternatives, which to him are merely marketing ploys lacking a solid foundation in good science and good management.
To enlighten readers, then, he explains things like the following:
- how his principles of “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” (the individual animal) have been adopted by the industry, reducing stress for many beef cattle and leading to higher productivity and profits
- how well cattle are cared for at feedyards (“like sending your son or daughter off to college—there is an adjustment period” p. 117)
- that, contrary to popular opinion, antibiotics are actually used very carefully, only with a prescription from a veterinarian, and that “resistant strains [of bacteria] are principally sourced in hospitals, where strong disinfectants are used” (p. 207)
- that the carbon footprint of conventional beef production is actually smaller than that of grass-fed or organic production.
I credit Peirce with enlarging the gray area for me in a lot of the issues he discusses. He speaks from firsthand experience, and I can’t dismiss most of his arguments out of hand on the basis of what I presently know. I also am inclined to believe him when he says the ranchers he’s dealt with have generally been strong, savvy people who care about the well-being of their animals.
Yet the book’s argument is weakened by significant flaws. Most notably for readers of The Natural Farmer, the author disposes of the significance of organic beef in less than one page. A few years ago, he considered producing organic beef, he says. When he investigated several organic operations, he “was not comfortable” with what he saw. He didn’t believe animals could be well cared for without practices that are prohibited under organic regulations, and he felt the costs would be too high.
Thus he fails to acknowledge any of the scientific and practical knowledge that has accumulated around organic agriculture in the last seventy years. It’s this knowledge, rather than mere emotion, that is the actual basis for many people’s decisions to buy organic beef. The author does cite scientific studies to back up some of his claims, but given the huge volume of literature available arguing both for conventional agriculture and for organic, to claim that the science he cites is the only kind worth listening to is to oversimplify the whole debate. (Peirce could have gained himself some space in the book for a more substantive debate with organic if he had cut about 90% of the text devoted to history and autobiography—including seven pages for the farewell speech of a nineteenth-century ranch manager.)
Peirce urges his critics to limit their judgments to matters within their own expertise and not judge the beef industry if they don’t understand it. He could have enhanced his own credibility if he had applied that logic to the production of his book, requesting the help of a professional manuscript editor. As it is, the book is very poorly edited and proofread, containing hundreds of avoidable errors. A few examples: wrong word choices (“attain” for “obtain,” “infamy” for “fame,” “populous” for “populace,” “principle” for “principal,” and others), a misspelled chapter title (“Beef Handing Techniques”) and subheading (“Brinining” for “Brining”), closing quotation marks without opening ones and vice versa, hundreds of semicolons where commas belong and commas where no punctuation is called for, dangling participles (“when thoughtfully consumed you will . . .” p. 24).
The Natural Farmer readers may wish to read this book to challenge themselves with a perspective different from the kind they get from literature preaching to the choir they already belong to. The voice of conventional beef producers does deserve to be heard, along with all other voices, and we can thank Peirce for slightly amplifying that voice. I only wish that before he had published his book, he himself had really listened to those who know organic farming, and to a manuscript editor.