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What goes into your food?

You don’t have to be the most observant person to notice that many people (in our country at least) really care about what goes into our food.

I’m not talking about flavours, spices, and ingredients simply added in a home kitchen. I’m talking about field, factory, and supermarket.

Agriculture science has been optimized for efficiency, and is constantly improving its methods to create the best, most profitable and plentiful food surplus imaginable. As Canadians, we have gotten so good at farming efficiency, that a total of two percent of our population are classified as farm residents – according to the data from the 2011 Census.

We have figured out how to sustain ourselves so well, that the focus of agriculture seems to have shifted towards sustaining the earth, and sustaining the future. This is how the organic movement took off.

Consumers are concerned with so-called ‘shady’ and ‘profit-driven’ business practices from agriculture producers, particularly the massive operations that can process thousands of animals or thousands of bushels of a plant crop.

I admit, I have seen the agriculture industry from many sides, including being the son of a beef farmer, the son-in-law of a grain farmer, and a former employee of a milk processing facility. And, I?know that the bottom line matters. Dollars need to flow in order to pay the bank, pay the bills, pay the payroll, or pay the shareholders.

Because everyone needs to stretch their dollars, optimization is key to ensure a maximum yield with a minimum input.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the farmers I?know are overloading their fields with synthetic nitrogen, or stuffing cows with antibiotics for the sake of trying to maximize the product yield. That is just wasteful because of diminishing returns. Plus, fertilizer and medicine is expensive, so why would you want to buy more of it than what is recommended? Agriculture producers might manage a lot of money and assets, but that isn’t exactly all discretionary income.

With organic agriculture becoming more popular, there is a consumer stigma against synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones.

I have written about the backlash of conventionally-produced beef in the pages of the Star and Times previously, so let me focus on milk production and processing, of which I?have personally been a part of.

Back before my name graced the pages of the Star and Times, I worked at a milk and cheese processing plant as a pasteurizer, where I handled raw milk all day and pasteurized it for packaging milk or other milk products.

Let me start by saying that those that are afraid of dairy farmers using antibiotics in their milk cows need not worry. If there is antibiotics in the milk tanker when it gets to the plant, it gets swiftly and without exception sent back down the road.

Next, I knew precisely where milk went to get from a tanker to a jug, and it was a relatively simple, but highly regulated and sanitary process. Pasteurization is a process in which milk is heated up to a minimum of 72C for a minimum of 15 seconds, which helps kill potential deadly pathogens and bacteria that will make milk spoil faster. Considering that our plant in Manitoba was shipping milk as far as Thunder Bay, Ont., I’m sure that consumers would want us to improve the shelf life if they don’t want it to spoil the day after they buy it.

And, I can confirm that the only additives to pasteurized milk is a Vitamin A and D blend. Vitamin A is added because the naturally occurring vitamin gets skimmed off with the cream. The Vitamin D helps with absorbing the calcium that is already plentiful in the milk.

While some claim that the pasteurizing process destroys beneficial nutrition presence in raw milk by making chemical changes, the science hasn’t added up to anything substantial. It is currently illegal to sell raw milk in Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration has not found the pasteurizing process to be detrimental to the nutrition of milk.

In addition, any benefit one might get from drinking raw milk introduces a risk of consuming deadly pathogens such as listeria or e.coli, which are commonly found bacteria.

Going back to organic practices, one argument for the promotion of organic is that it is better for the earth in the long run.?While that may be partially true, consider this: conventional food production practices such as pasteurizing milk and promoting higher yields means there is less cost to the farmer and to the land. Perhaps we could eliminate that and sustain the human population on completely organic and less processed food, but that would mean food prices would go up, we would need more farmland, water, and other resources to produce the same amount of food (meaning knocking down more trees for the sake of cows and wheat), and more carbon emissions will be released into the atmosphere as a result of farm equipment being used for more hours.

There are positives and negatives to everything, and in the end, do the debatable positives of organic farming and more ‘natural’ food production outweigh the positives of creating efficiencies in the industry and making it easier to feed the world? I tend not to think so.

Jeremy Bergen