4 min read

Humane Certified Farmers Are Not Always Animal Experts

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Noah Berlatsky writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Recently I wrote a story about "Star Wars" and science fiction for The Atlantic. The comments section, as these things will, featured a large number of people telling me that I was unqualified to write about the topic because I hadn't read enough sci-fi books, or hadn't read enough recent sci-fi books, or hadn't read the right sci-fi books, or hadn't seen the right sci-fi movies.

I'm sure this is a familiar experience for anyone who's published work on culture.

Culture? Try agriculture.

I've been writing about the topic for many years and perhaps the biggest blowback question I get is "Are you a farmer?"

"No," I respond, "which is why you should trust me."

There is a paradox at the core of expertise: those who really know something well, be it sci-fi or growing corn, are often too wrapped up in it economically or emotionally to register opinions that are free of self-interest. Not always, but most of the time.

Critics can say what they will about my thoughts on agriculture but, at the end of the day, I'm a history professor who, although passionate about the topic, has no economic stake in the game one way or another. Zero. I get my paycheck from the state of Texas.

By contrast, take a close look at those who are delivering the most persistent pleas for various forms of agricultural reform, one way or another.

I'm too tired to name names, but when beef ranchers promote the beauties of grass-fed beef, or pig-farmers promote the beauties of pastured pigs, or egg-farmers promote the virtue of Humane Certified eggs, or food writers promote foods that happen to be central to the recipes they write in best-selling cookbooks, I balk.

To be fair, I also balk when - again, without naming names - animal advocates link their activism with their own entrepreneurial product development. I'm not begrudging anyone their quest to make some crumple, but I have no choice but to assume their expertise is compromised as well.

Odd as it may sound, expertise is enhanced with distance from the topic under consideration.