Current events this past couple of weeks reminded me once again that life in its purest form is largely an exercise in making choices.

Our choices guide our lives and send us reeling in a variety of directions, some planned and others unplanned. This past couple of weeks my normal cadre of reading materials has brought to light three stories of choices made regarding additions to what I’ll term the natural state of being. Most interesting is how these choices have been or will be viewed.

Braun1     We begin with the easy one—Ryan Braun, the Brewers’ MVP who apparently decided to enhance some pretty decent God-given baseball abilities with a little extra testosterone on his Wheaties. Not considered in this decision-making process was the fact that the guy cashing Braun’s testosterone checks would be singing like a canary two years later to save his own skin.

Most baseball fans, players, and certainly Major League Baseball don’t react kindly to proven steroid users. They have, however, demonstrated in the past a certain level of forgiveness to those who own-up to their bad decisions.

Braun’s passionate denial of any wrong doing after beating his positive drug test in 2011 has now turned the reaction of recent events from the usual harsh criticism into a total annihilation of his character that likely will never be reversed.

My official reaction to all of this: next guy up grab your glove and let’s play ball.

With steroid use in baseball and lying about it established as horrible choices, let’s move-on to the use of antibiotics in livestock agriculture and a marketing campaign by the Panera Bread restaurant chain that went terribly wrong in recent days.

The company has long indicated that the chicken they serve is “antibiotic free.” Fair enough: the supplier farm, poultry giant Perdue, doesn’t use antibiotics.

The backlash occurred when Panera Bread launched their “EZChicken” marketing campaign that stated their competition served antibiotic-laden birds, depicted barns and chickens in the shape of pill capsules, and implied farmers who use antibiotics to cure sick animals were lazy.

braun2The reaction from the Internet blogosphere was quick and harsh, led by Wisconsin agriculture advocate and farmer Carrie Mess (DairyCarrie.com). The response prompted a call from Panera Bread’s corporate headquarters to Ms. Mess and at least a partial company retraction of some of the marketing campaign’s components.

Specific to the company’s claims and statements, many other restaurants could claim “antibiotic free” chicken, but choose not to because it’s really not such a unique offering. Further, and this should be intuitive, there are strict withholding guidelines for antibiotic-treated animals before their meat or milk can be sold and enter the food supply chain. Getting caught shipping animals or milk with antibiotic residues creates a Ryan Braun-like experience for the farm perpetrator. Both meat and milk are tested before processing.

As for Panera’s choice of calling farmers lazy, let’s just say that’s like questioning a plumber’s knowledge of pipe wrenches. If either occurs, you can bet some sort of ruckus will ensue.

Braun3     Our final story for consideration comes from New York Times’ writer Amy Harmon in her report “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.” This is a fascinating tale of one man’s personal and internal battle to save the U.S. orange crop while not knowing how consumers will react.

Citrus greening is a devastating bacterial disease carried by psyllid insects. About ten years ago the disease found its way to the U.S. orange crop. Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, went on a personal mission to save both his trees and those of his competition.

He scoured the world for trees with natural resistance, but found none. His company and others began burning infested trees and ramped-up pesticide use to double or triple what had been the norm to save those trees not yet infested. The disease continued to spread from Florida to California.

The orange industry had long avoided genetic engineering. They didn’t know what consumer reaction that might bring even though transgenic crops had become mainstream for other crops in previous years. Kress finally came to the conclusion that it was either find a resistant gene from another species or face huge production losses and increased pesticide use.

The research race was on and millions of dollars spent as more trees were burned each year. Scientists worked using genes from a virus, onion, and even a pig. All were abandoned for one reason or another. Finally, a spinach gene that created a natural protein deadly to the disease bacteria but harmless to humans was selected.

The end of the story? Well, it’s not written just yet. Only when these oranges eventually find their way to grocery shelves and freezers after all the required tests are done will we know if Mr. Kress made a good choice.

Testosterone, antibiotics, and spinach genes—fifth grade current event reports sure have changed over the years.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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