Report

A Carnivore Nation's Dilemma (Fall 2008 Trust Magazine article)

  • October 01, 2008
  • By Bill McKibben

I live in bucolic Vermont, traditional home of thousands of small dairy farms. But even here the trend seems inexorable—every year more of those family dairies disappear, and the ones that remain grow steadily larger. You don't see the cows in the field—they're all inside, standing on concrete, in what only a sentimentalist would still call a milking parlor. Most of the farmhands come in, illegally, from the border at the other corner of the continent. And it's all, pretty much, invisible.

Now take note of a new report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, the final in a series from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. It tries to help readers and policy makers see through the pole-barn walls (and the spreadsheets) that obscure the huge revolution in American farming in recent decades: its transition to an essentially industrial enterprise. Nowhere is that more evident than in the meat industry, which is where the commission focuses: on the concentrated animal feeding operations that now supply most all our pork and poultry.

The numbers are startling. We have chicken barns as long as football fields, some holding 25,000 birds. One single hog farm in Utah boasts half a million head of swine. And this industrialization of animals has worked, at least in bottom-line terms. You can bring a broiler chicken to market weight in 45 days now, down from 84 half a century ago. Meat is, by any historical standard, cheap. In 1979 Americans on average bought 194 pounds of meat annually, and it took 4.2 percent of their income; now we buy 221 pounds apiece, and it requires only 2.1 percent of earnings. It's the very hallmark of “efficiency.”

But that efficiency comes with a cost. Or rather, costs—big ones. The Pew commission singles out four for careful scrutiny.

Public health, first. When you put enormous numbers of creatures in the same place, they spread disease easily, to each other and to human beings (think salmonella). They're also fed great quantities of antibiotics, sometimes to slow down those diseases but mostly to make livestock grow more quickly—and the fact that half the antimicrobials in America disappear into farm animals clearly has much to do with the emergence of resistant disease strains.

The commissioners, among other things, make a compelling case for a link to the multiple-resistant strains of staph now becoming eerily common in America. The so-called MRSA bacterium can also be found in a quarter of all pigs in some samples, and in some places pig farmers are 760 times more likely than the general population to carry the bacteria.

Oh, and then there's the little things—farm kids whose asthma rate tops 44 percent because of the bad air they breathe, people dying of hydrogen sulfide poisoning when they turn over the manure in vast pits.

About that manure—it's at the center of the next big risk the commission cites, this one to the environment. That farm in Utah with half a million head of swine? It produces more sewage each year than . . . Manhattan. Waste streams like that work toxic mischief on streams and estuaries—even oceans, where vast dead zones grow ever larger at the mouths of rivers that drain farmland. (And unlike towns and cities, too many of these facilities don't come with sewage treatment plants; the owners are allowed to put the costs on whoever lives downstream.)

Water use in this kind of farming is profligate—a five-pound, grain-fed chicken represents 2,000 gallons of water. Industrial livestock farming is also an enormous contributor to global warming. The commission cites data showing that, globally, meat-raising produces more greenhouse gas emissions than even automobiles.

The commission's third cost is perhaps the most obvious—efficiency like this comes at the sacrifice of animal welfare. If you want chicken at $1.29 a pound, then you can't afford to give the chicken much of a life. Many of these animals never see the outdoors. They're caged in ways that keep them from moving, and certainly from behaving, like animals. They're bred to be, essentially, machines: What do you think of when you hear the word bovine?

The commission—clearly concerned after many visits to the facilities—concludes unequivocally: “The most intensive confinement systems, such as restrictive veal crates, hog gestation pens, restrictive farrowing crates and battery cages for poultry, all prevent the animal a normal range of movement and constitute inhumane treatment.” That's about as blunt as the warning on a pack of cigarettes. You could post it over the meat case at your local supermarket.

And if animals suffer, humans and their communities don't do much better. In the section on Rural Life, the commissioners let out the dirty secret of country living in 21st-century America: It's poor and getting poorer. And the more industrial agriculture there is in your neighborhood, the worse off you become—more confined or concentrated animal feeding operations in your county, more people on food stamps.

To a large degree, that's because the farms don't benefit the regional economy. Those big battery poultry houses aren't buying their grain locally—they're bringing it in from some equally oversized corn operation somewhere else.

And even the people who still have jobs and incomes find their quality of life suffering, if nothing else from the stench that can hang over a whole region when you crowd that many animals together. “The smell can have dramatic impacts for the surrounding community,” the commissioners write. “Social gatherings are affected through the disruption of routines that normally provide a sense of belonging and identity—backyard barbecues, church attendance and visits with friends and family.”

In many ways, the panel's list of complaints is not novel. Anyone who's read bestsellers like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma has seen the same ground covered (and, it must be said, in somewhat more gripping prose—they're unlikely to make a movie from this report). And in fact, the commissioners ignore some of the most obvious problems with our agriculture, including the fact that our food doesn't taste very good and isn't making us very healthy—anyone really want to argue that we're better off than we were in 1970 because we're eating 27 more pounds of red meat annually (or, to put it another way, 108 more Quarter-Pounders)? No.

In a sense, what makes this compelling reading is the list of people who put it together: not outsiders, but people who have played vital roles in the industry. Dan Glickman, for instance, former secretary of agriculture, or Tom Dempster, Republican state senator from South Dakota, or Dan Jackson, former president of the Western Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Commission chair John Carlin, former governor of Kansas, writes in his introduction that he was initially reluctant to get involved because “the nature of partisan politics makes the discussion of any issue facing our country extremely challenging.” But it was Carlin, say other commission members, who really helped set the tone. At the end of an early hearing in California, recalls commissioner Fred Kirschenmann, “all the guys from the industry were up there saying, ‘There's no problem, there's nothing wrong.' And John, who's a fairly conservative guy, looked at them: ‘We're really here to help you. But you're telling us there are no problems, and we all know there are.' After that, the room got kind of quiet.”

Kirschenmann clearly emerged as one of the central thinkers on the panel. An early convert to organic farming and a prolific and highly regarded writer on sustainable agriculture, he authored a five-page “conclusion” on behalf of the commission that reads like an essay by the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry. It delves deeper than the rest of the report, asking tough questions about whether industrial agriculture can survive a future where oil becomes expensive, water scarce and climate unstable.

He argues that we will need to back away from the very idea of concentration—the heart of the factory-farm paradigm—in favor of dispersion: scattered renewable energy like wind and sun instead of concentrated forms like the fossil fuels; cultivation of diverse crops (“polycultures”) that can cope with periodic drought and heat waves better than concentrated, single-crop monocultures. Think cows wandering in pasture and munching on sun-fed, rain-watered grass, leaving behind fertilizer. Think less meat, think more farmers.

Kirschenmann is a realist, though, and describes several transitional farms: a 3,000-head California dairy, for instance, where the farmers manage to treat their animals and the surrounding environment well enough to earn a nod of approval, or a chicken operation that produces 90,000 dozen eggs a day but also composts the manure and sells it to landscapers and gardeners.

“Tweaking the current monoculture confinement with such methods will be very useful in the short term,” he concludes, “but as energy, water and climate resources undergo dramatic changes, it is the commission's judgment that U.S. agricultural production will need to transition to much more biologically diverse systems, organized into biological synergies that exchange energy, improve soil quality and conserve water and other resources. . . Long-term sustainability will require a transformation from an industrial economy to an ecological economy.” That's a pretty radical notion for a former secretary of agriculture to sign off on.

The report ends with a set of recommendations, some of them tweaks, most that would result in large-scale change. In the area of public health, for instance, the commissioners call for the end of the use of antibiotics except to treat sick animals—a step already pioneered by several European governments. Among other things, they point out that farmers can obtain antibiotics easily online, a loophole they want to close and replace with far greater oversight by veterinarians.

They endorse a controversial national animal-identification program to allow for easier tracking of diseases—but with the crucial qualification that small farmers will get the help they need to pay for the ear tags or microchips, without which the law will simply become one more boon to consolidation.

Their environmental recommendations center on manure. They demand real enforcement of the Clean Water Act and a new system to deal with farm waste, including putting some of the responsibility for paying for treatment on the “integrators” like the big poultry firms that contract with individual farmers.

They call for the phase-out of liquidmanure systems—and maybe most importantly of all, they call for a new way of thinking about our factory farms. Forget the countrified beer-commercial pictures of a guy in overalls with a hay bale in the back of his Ford pickup. “Most animal production facilities in the United States . . . have become highly specialized manufacturing endeavors and should be viewed as such.”

Crucially, they also call for the enforcement of federal antitrust laws on the farm, and if that's not enough to break up the giant monopolies dominating American agriculture, then “further legislative remedies should be considered.”

The panel pulls no punches when it comes to animal welfare, either. Pigs and cows and chickens should not suffer prolonged hunger or thirst; they should be comfortable in their lying areas with the space to move around freely, and they should be allowed to “perform normal, nonharmful social behaviors,” i.e., live like animals, not fleshy machines.

That recommendation alone would undo most industrial farming in the country. Indeed, the commissioners call quite directly for an end to battery cages for chickens and the crates where sows are kept from turning around. Cows and hogs, they say, should not spend their lives on concrete.

The panel could have gone further—after all, ruminants like cows are not designed to eat grain; “normal” cowlike behavior is to stand in a pasture eating grass. But even so, says Kirschenmann, if the recommendations were ever implemented, many existing operations simply couldn't continue.

Which raises the question, of course, of whether the panel's advice will be taken.Much of the initial reaction from around farm country was positive—and the coverage in the nation's newspapers was widespread and mostly glowing. Pork, the magazine for the pig industry, didn't much care for it, though, and the director of the Animal Agriculture Alliance called many of the ideas, like banning antibiotics, “extremely unrealistic.”

Since one effect of the concentration of animals has been the concentration of profits—and with it, political power—the report may not have immediate effect. But it's hard to read its comprehensive diagnosis, and its powerful prescriptions, without concluding that factory farming is a very sick enterprise, in need of just the kind of radical surgery the panel recommends.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production is a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. For downloadable copies of the commission's final report, as well as its interim reports and discussion of the issues, go to www.ncifap.org.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on the environment, including The End of Nature. He writes regularly for national magazines ranging from Harper's and The Atlantic to National Geographic and Christian Century.