Apr 01 2011

Part 4: The Loss of Diversity

I found Part 4 of The CAFO Reader to be dense and slightly repetitive.  To clarify, it’s still a vitally important section to read—it just took me longer to sift through, especially as the authors started to repeat each other!   Before starting this section, I already possessed some background knowledge on the small and diminishing biodiversity of our food, due to the systematic loss of animal and plant breeds over the past century.  Much more positively, I’ve also read about the work being done to preserve vital genetic links to the past, both by scientific organizations and farms focused on heritage animals. My major take-away from this section was a more fine-tuned exploration of where we used to be and where we are today.

Biodiversity goes beyond the sheer number of plants and animals.  The word also applies to the variety of each organism, with an emphasis on native species – that is, species that are naturally suited to a certain environment or use.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about biodiversity loss is species loss.  For example:

  • In 1920, we ate from 60 different breeds of poultry.  Today, we rely on 2-3 “industrial hybrids”.
  • In the US, over 80% of purebred dairy cattle are the black-and-white Holstein.
  • Between the 1930s and today, 6 breeds of pigs have become completely extinct.

The picture of biodiversity loss is much bigger—and much more stark—than that.  The loss of diversity also encompasses the shrinking of the number of farms that produce or grow our nation’s food, the kind of food that is grown or raised, the number of companies in charge of these industries, and the degradation of soil and wildlife due to intense industrial agriculture.  The choices of what to eat and which companies control what we eat are smaller than ever before.

In thinking about domesticating animals and farming, some may argue that we’ve always domesticated animals to our advantage.  That statement seems true, on the surface.  For 10,000 + years, domesticated animals have been essential to human society.  Typically, animals have been used in two ways:  animal products (food, fibers, leather, manure) versus animal services (grazing, power, pest control, etc).

Here’s one key difference between domesticated animals in the past compared to now:  in the past, domestication was localized, with animals bred to fit regional conditions.  Now animals are domesticated to fit one condition: industrial production.

A handful of breeds are now at their limits of growth and productivity.  As a result of the genetic base being lowered, these animals suffer from chronic maladies and are prone to disease.  Livestock production is now separated from food crop and forage production:  nothing is in harmony.

While farmers and farms disappear and the underlying diversity of our food choices continues to shrink, the market shares, and subsequent salaries, of the nation’s top agriculture companies grow each year.  Due to lax enforcement of anti-trust, environmental, and labor regulations, each sector of industrial farming is currently controlled by only a few companies:

70% of Dairy: Land o’ Lakes, Foremost Farms, DFA, and Dean

80% of Cows:  Tyson, JBS Swift, Cargill, National Beef

64% of Hogs: Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, Cargill

47% of Chickens:  Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride

As these few companies “engulf market share” (-Tom Philpott) they gain increasing power to dictate market price, what they grow, and how they grow it.  These companies are vertically integrated, meaning that they control every part of the process:  birth, raising, feeding, slaughtering, packing, and selling.  Any vertically-integrated industry depends upon a consistent, predictable, and uniform supply chain – meaning that these companies have a vested interest in decreasing biodiversity.

Why is it important to conserve genetic diversity?

  • Food Security:  Genetic diversity is the basis for responding to future environmental challenges.  For example, greater diversity limits the potential damage of an outbreak of disease or a dramatic environmental change.
  • Economic Opportunity:  More breeds can mean more high-value products, and can serve markets that currently rely on imports (ex, sheep’s milk cheese).
  • Environmental Stewardship:  Thoughtful agriculture and a diverse genetic pool can aid in recovering natural habitats, maintaining grasslands, and eliminating costly chemicals.
  • Scientific Knowledge: “A full understanding of the animal kingdom requires the protection of genetic diversity,” writes Daniel Imhoff.  As our ability to map specific genes to traits increases, we gain greater scientific insights by inspecting a larger and more diverse gene pool.
  • Cultural Preservation:  Solutions to modern agricultural problems can be found in records from the past.
  • Ethical Responsibility: Animals should be granted more consideration than simple industrial inputs and outputs, and species that have been our domesticated partners for centuries should not be arbitrarily eliminated to serve a production quota.

Part 5 explores the ‘Hidden Costs’ of CAFOs, with insights from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Eric Schlosser, Anna Lappe, and more.  Check back soon for my summary and thoughts.