May 19 2011

Part 6: Technological Takeover

Part Six of The CAFO Reader may be drably titled “Technological Takeover”, but several of the section titles were more to the point:  Franken Food and Nuclear Meat.

What image comes into your head when you hear the phrase ‘technological takeover’? I’d say something like machines taking over the world.  If someone asked the same question for the phrases ‘franken food’ or ‘nuclear meat’, I’d quickly respond with ‘food I’d never want to eat’.

Where previous sections of the book have delved into hidden costs of industrial food and what it’s really like inside a CAFO, Section 6 explores the science being used to maintain these factories, with their overcrowded animals and subsequent cheap food. Instead of changing the industry to fit the environment, the industry is developing animals to fit its practices.

Unfortunately, these technofixes (new vocabulary word!) may work to solve some problems (as defined by the factories)—like, silencing a mothering hen’s brooding gene, making chickens blind so they calm down in their tight quarters, increasing the amount of phosphorous a pig can digest so pig farms comply with phosphorous regulations—but can create a domino effect of unforeseen consequences.

Besides the ethical arguments against genetically breeding chickens to be blind or changing a pig’s digestive system, many technological approaches fail to address scale.

As Temple Grandin says:

“Often when the industry comes up with a solution to a problem, the solution ends up costing so much to implement that they industry has to intensify production to remain afloat.”

Before reading this section, I was already aware of the massive amounts of antibiotics that were pumped in factory animals—a staggering 60-80% of antibiotic use in this country is in industrial food animal production.   I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with treating a SICK animal with antibiotics, though due to current USDA organic regulations, once a sick animal is treated, that animal must be removed from the herd, even if it meets all other organic requirements.

I do believe, however, that everything is wrong with creating conditions (overcrowding, improper feed, lack of natural air) in which animals have to be treated with sub therapeutic doses just to survive.  This is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous.

Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics can facilitate rapid emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of disease causing organisms.  These organisms can enter our environment in multiple ways:  waste disposal, crop fertilizer, groundwater, and even through the air if the factory has a poor ventilation system.

Before reading this section, I was almost entirely unaware of the increased practice of cloning.  We all remember Dolly, the cloned sheep (who apparently was euthanized after developing a lung disease just 5 years after her birth), but I’ve neither heard of nor noticed reports on the current state of animal cloning.

According to Rebecca Spector, cloned animal products are allowed to enter the food chain unlabeled.  Besides that immediate red flag, there are many reasons that it’s imperative for comprehensive studies to be conducted before cloned meat is sold, if at all.  The process of cloning translates to dangerous species manipulation.  If scientists are seeking to draw out desirable traits (bigger breasts in chickens or the examples mentioned above), there are bound to be negative consequences.  These include spontaneous abortions of cloned fetuses, massive deformities, and enormous health problems—in 99% of cloned animals.

Along with the incredible stress and suffering of cloned animals, scientists have yet to conduct large studies on the safety of eating a cloned animal product, including on its hormone, protein, and fat levels.

And what about the fate of defective cloned animals?  They become animal feed, pet food, and even cosmetics.

In addition to sub-therapeutic antibiotics, cloning, and tampering with animals’ genetic makeup, nuclear technology is another ‘technofix’ employed to maintain the current production state of the factory farm.  Nuclear meat.    Each year hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat are irradiated before they’re sold at the store.  During the disassembly process, many animals arrive coated in feces (due to living conditions and improper disassembly).  If you rinse the fecal matter with a chemical rinse, that carcass can be kept on the production line.  And while this radiation may kill bacteria, it’s also powerful enough—equivalent of a 150 million chest x-rays—to kill the meat’s vitamins and chemical composition.    The only positive I took away from the Nuclear Meat section was that irradiated foods still DO have to be labeled when sold.

Ultimately, as Wenonah Hauter says in her essay, these are all quick fixes to “sustain inhumane, unacceptable practices”.