Mar 17 2011

Part 3: Inside the CAFO

“We are what we eat eats.”

Each summer in elementary school, my brother and I would participate in the summer library program.  The program involved reading a set number of books (which being the bookworm I was, I would complete before two weeks of summer had passed) and various themed programming.  I remember entire summers organized around oceans and the beach, others around animals, and one around food.  One of the projects during that food-themed summer was to create a poster illustrating the phrase ‘You are what you eat!’.  As an eight year old, I had no clue what this meant.  Despite my mom’s best efforts, I simply couldn’t grasp the concept.  Maybe it was because I was eight and ate whatever I wanted to eat (within reason) when I was hungry.  It’s not like I’d had experience with weight gain and I wasn’t a picky eater, subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.   I never though about where food came from.  Food was food.  Why were we doing this poster?!

Thankfully, I’ve come a long way in the past few decades.  And to complicate matters,  ‘You are what you eat’ has become ‘You are what you eat eats’.  Imagine having a summer library program tackle THAT for a poster board project!

So, if you are what you eat eats, this means that if you’re able to eat pasture raised, grass-eating beef, then the cow you’re eating has eaten his natural diet and your beef is full of omega-3s.   If you’re eating grain fed beef, whether by choice or necessity, then the cow you’re ingesting has eaten a diet of corn, antibiotics, bloodmeal, and other animals in his lifetime.

Parts One and Two of The CAFO Reader examined the mindset and the myths of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  Part 3 pulls together well-known articles like ‘Power Steer’ and ‘Boss Hog’ to examine life inside the factory farm -- for the animals, the workers, the nearby residents, and even the meat packers.

In Power Steer, Michael Pollan follows one cow from birth to death.  The first stage of beef production is also the least changed.  Even grain finished cows still graze, usually for about 6 months.  There are a myriad of benefits from and for grazing cows.  Besides the fact that cows are designed to eat grass and not grain (as they are ruminants), the environment gains from grazing cows.  Cows help to spread grass seed, prevents trees and shrubs from taking over the grasses, and fertilizes the field.  The cow and the grass form a completely reciprocal relationship.

Due to constant feeding of corn and growth hormones, and little to no room for moving, cows now reach slaughter weight much more quickly (14 months versus 4-5 years). In Stage 2, when cows switch to grain, their digestive process is so disturbed that antibiotics aren’t just recommended, they’re necessary.  Much has been written about why corn is fed to cows:  it’s cheap and plentiful thanks to federal subsidies.  It’s compact and portable.  Besides serving to slowly kill the cow, this diet also produces less healthy meat:  corn fed beef contains much more saturated fat in comparison to grass-fed beef.  When a cow gets moved from grazing on a field to surviving in a feed lot, their corn diet is supplemented with blood products, fat, and non-ruminant animals (Mad Cow disease at least meant that cows are no longer being forced to eat cows).  So, what happens when cows eat corn?  In short, rumination stops and the rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing into the lungs, slowly suffocating the animal.

Jeff Tietz’s Boss Hog, which is also included in Part 3, examines Smithfield’s hold on the pork industry.  Since 1990 Chairman Luter has steadily grown Smithfield to control every stage of pork production.  They now kill 1 out of every 4 pigs sold.

Here’s something you probably haven’t thought much about related to pigs:  their waste.  Apparently, hogs produce three times more excrement than humans.  And this waste is toxic—full of insecticides, antibiotics, and vaccines--and thus more similar to industrial waste than manure.

What happens to all of this waste?!  Most of it is funneled into lagoons, hundreds of which can surround a slaughterhouse.  These lagoons can be 30 feet deep, and filled to the brim: even light rains cause them to overflow.  The waste seeps into the ground (quickly increasing the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in any body of water) and the noxious gas (ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide) can spread for miles.  You know there’s a problem when workers fall into these lagoons and immediately die (or when one falls in and dies, along with his four attempted rescuers, as illustrated in Boss Hog).  Those who live downstream from the hog factories—and workers who are spared death—are frequently attacked by a flesh-eating microbe (Pfiesteria piscida) that results in nerve and pulmonary damage.

Smithfield also sprays the waste on fields—but they don’t grow nearly enough crops to absorb all of the waste. Smithfield requires an inordinate amount of nitrate rich hay to absorb the generated waste.  This has contributed to the hay market collapse and sickened the cows who are then fed this nitric acid hay.

The other essays in Part 3 examine worker conditions (“intolerable monotony”) and the effect that “size” has had on our food—both size of the animal, such as the dairy cow, and size of the operations, such as the massive California and Colorado dairy farms that have lowered the market value of milk and put the majority of smaller dairy farmers out of business.  In fact, there’s now a 40% gap between production costs of milk and the US milk market price.  Only the bigger businesses can shoulder such a disparity.

This need for size and speed has impacted animals, production, and availability.  Power is now overwhelmingly in the hands of retailers and fast food.  There are several reasons for this change:

•    Retailers and fast food’s own consolidation has granted them enormous buying power;

•    These retailers are the closest links in the chain to the consumer, thus giving them disproportionate say in what they think the consumer wants;

•    At this point, the big meat companies are so large that they have no one else to sell to

•    Finally, if you want to sell to a chain—the chain that sets the market price--you have to sell at the volume a chain needs.

As aquaculture becomes more and more prevalent, it’s important to remind ourselves that the same negatives of confining pigs, chickens, and cows exist when confining fish:

•    Pollution seeps into the open ocean;

•    High volume leads to a need for antibiotics, which can be ingested not only by the farmed fish but by other organisms nearby;

•    Farmed fish, if not farmed properly, are a risk to wild populations through disease and interbreeding;

•    Fish farming is wiping out fishing communities, leaving locals without food or a way of life.