Wednesday, April 9, 2008

In Brief: Organic Agriculture’s Benefits and “Academics and Athletics”

--Several years ago, I took an independent study on food culture for my history major. One of the books I read was former presidential candidate George McGovern’s treatise The Third Freedom, where he argues that the U.S. has the capacity to end world hunger. In outlining his proposal the federal government, McGovern is quite optimistic about genetically modified (GM) foods, believing that without them, “the task of defeating hunger becomes more difficult and less certain of victory” (39). This book was the first time I had heard of GM foods, but I was already a bit skeptical, and remember bringing this up during conversations with my professor. (Reading this book soon afterward confirmed my suspicions.)

Just as Mark Bittman admits about himself, I remain a near-complete novice on the important points of comparison between organic and GM foods. Regardless, I think he on target in his positive assessment of The Ecologist’s recent articles “10 Reasons Why Organic Can Feed the World” and “10 Reasons GM Won’t." Ed Hamer and Mark Anslow argue that an organic agricultural system is sustainable, provided that we reduce our meat consumption, eat more locally, and reconsider certain farming strategies. They also offer plenty of statistical evidence, though it would be nice to see proper citations for their numbers. Still, they make a fairly compelling contention, and hopefully someone will be able to consider their arguments within an American context.

Likewise, Mark Anslow’s arguments against GM food seem pretty on-target. He re-iterates its most glaring problems: cross-contamination with non-GM food, proven risks to animals, lower yields, and strongly negative public opinion. Currently, none of these factors are enough to derail industrial agriculture’s insistence on GM techniques. Yet at the end, Anslow makes this bold claim: “In a world that will soon have to change its view of farming - facing as it does the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil - GM crops will soon come to look like a relic of bygone practices.”

--What should we make of the Ann Arbor News’ recent four-part investigative series “Academics and Athletics”? AAN has clearly done its homework (seven months worth of research), and the series make a persuasive argument that the University of Michigan’s athletic department deliberately steers scholarship athletes—particularly football and basketball players—into easy academic tracks. Consequently, this series bears some similarity to the Seattle Times investigation about which I wrote in February. Like the Times, the AAN has received overwhelmingly negative local feedback on its findings, including several references to dropped subscriptions in their online comments sections.

I think the best way to place this particular series into perspective is to consider an NCAA study from earlier this year on time commitments for student-athletes. In the study, football players—the central concern of the AAN series—self-reported spending an average of nearly 45 hours per week on athletics. While they also reported spending around 40 hours per week on academics, University of Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber was somewhat skeptical, estimating “the time spent on academics to be between 25 and 35 hours.” With this sort of demanding schedule, it’s apparent that football players in particular are probably not going to have the same sort of educational opportunities as non-athletes (or even other athletes). The question then becomes one of whether universities choose to encourage and challenge football players academically, or whether they take the easy road. The University of Michigan has clearly chosen the latter path, but I’m certain that they’re not alone.

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