Feb 16 2011

Gathering my Thoughts: The CAFO Reader

Some people assign themselves enjoyable New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘See friends more’ or ‘Take time for me’.  I have those goals too, but I tacked a not-as-easily-enjoyable item to my list:  to develop a better understanding of factory farming.  I want to be able to:

a)     Accurately recognize (and explain to others interested) the realities of factory farming;

b)    Understand the development and pervasiveness of this model;

c)     Explore the nuances of why the majority of people turn a blind eye towards how their meat is raised;

d)    Discover if there is hope for the future, in terms of animals’ well being, our environment, and our nation’s health.

Are you familiar with the acronym CAFO?  If you know me well, you’ve probably heard me mention it a few times. CAFO:  Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  The goal of a CAFO is to concentrate the maximum number of animals into the smallest space possible to gain weight as quickly as possible at the least cost.  There is neither animal husbandry nor harmony with nature.  The goal of a CAFO is to conquer nature instead of working with nature.

I’ve been gathering and cataloguing facts and information about our country’s food system for the past year and a half.  One of our bookshelves reads like a food studies section in a bookstore: Eating Animals, Bottomfeeder, No Impact Man, Fast Food Nation, Food Politics, and others.  I’ve visited the Stone Barns Center several times.  I’ve traveled to farms and talked with farmers in the New York foodshed.  I religiously read Grist.  And I’m living in a time (and a city) where inspiring people, organizations, and farms are striving to positively influence both public awareness and culture around the way our country eats.

My daily thoughts are consumed by food.  Sometimes these thoughts are pretty pedantic (“Man, I want a cupcake” or “We need to go back to Vinegar Hill House.”) and other times they’re much more complicated (“What will change our current food system?”  Why do so many Americans watch cooking shows on TV instead of cooking?”). When my thoughts veer towards the more complicated, I often become frustrated with the depth of information that I need to process.  Despite living around Washington, DC for the majority of my life, I remain fairly naïve to backroom dealings and am disillusioned by politics – which means that it takes me awhile to grasp the complicated chain of events related to food subsidies, school lunch, the price of food, and GMOs.

Beyond the depth of knowledge that I’m attempting to gain about our food system and food access, I struggle to explain my knowledge to people who have no background information.  While I thrive from conversations with like-minded people about our food system, I want to be able to accurately and concisely explain the problems (and hopefully solutions) with our nation’s food system without coming off as preachy or disjointed.

I’m tired of hearing statements from friends and acquaintances like “God put me on this earth to eat meat”, and “I don’t want to know!  Don’t tell me!”, and then struggling to respond in a thoughtful, accurate way, while pushing down a sharp anger towards those statements.  On the flip side of willful ignorance, I’m also overwhelmed and saddened by situations where I talk with or read about people who want to eat differently but can’t afford to.  Finally, how do I begin to respond to statements like “eating ethically and responsibly makes you an elitist”? (For half of a response, read Joel Salatin’s article about the idiocy of local food elitism claims.)

I think my ongoing struggles with accurate and concise explanation and discussion about factory farming boil down this:  How can I level-headedly make clear the reality of factory farming when said reality is so monumental and pervasive? How can I explain to someone what’s wrong with the current system when the answer is everything? After all, when a person starts to see the reality of a situation like factory farming, it’s often easier to NOT think about it.

Back to my New Year’s ‘resolution’:  I am now reading The CAFO Reader:  The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.  The CAFO Reader is an organized collection of essays by many of today’s leading food thinkers including Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, and Wendell Berry, on this most important environmental and ethical issue.  Early reviews optimistically indicated that The CAFO Reader should “become an invaluable educational resource in the battle to reform the tragic state of industrial livestock production.”

The book is divided into seven sections, starting with “The Pathological Mindset of the CAFO” and concluding with “Putting the CAFO out to Pasture”.

In case it isn’t clear from this blog or my introduction, I am adamantly against CAFOs and will never knowingly buy or consume anything from them.  Why do I hate CAFOs so much?  Here’s the problem I was just talking about:  the myriad of reasons limits my ability to be concise! The ‘tragedy’ of CAFOs is that it’s pretty easy to quickly find another reason for concern:

Are you in the health field?  Are you concerned about your current and/or future health?

Are you an environmentalist?

Do you think people should receive appropriate pay for their work?

Is community important to you?

Do you enjoy fresh air?  What about nature?

Do you want to cook meat (and for that matter, vegetables) without worrying about pathogens?

Are you an animal lover?  Do you own a pet?

Do you like to swim in the ocean?

There really is a reason for everyone to be anti-CAFO, reasons that span antibiotic resistance, ecological and environmental effects, and the monopolization of our food supply by a small number of corporations.

Because of The CAFO Reader’s density and sheer amount of information, I will be summarizing the book section by section, as I read it.  I’ve just finished Part 1, so check back tomorrow for synopsis.