industrial agriculture

Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.

Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

Keeping America safe … from foodies

Grass-finished beef. I KNOW where this has been. Photo by yours truly.

Updated below.

As I was sayin’, there’s something a little fishy about all these contrarian takes on conventional wisdom, by writers who style themselves as brave iconoclastic thinkers but really are just defenders of the status quo.

Here’s another one, on a subject dear to my heart, the merits of grass-fed (and -finished) over “conventionally raised” beef.  In the ominously titled Beware the myth of grass-fed beef at Slate, Dr. James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University, scores yet another high-profile national opinion place. Previously, he had posted pieces on the New York Times‘ “Freakanomics” blog with provocative titles like “Are Farmer’s Markets that Good for Us?” Last April he snared the prime real estate of the Times opinion page with Free-range trichonosis, in which he argued that free-range pork could be more dangerous that the pork that comes from factory farms.

About that particular 0p-ed. It was published April 9. On April 14, this disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the piece:

An Op-Ed article last Friday, about pork, neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.

(Oops. Maybe someone on the Times‘ opinion staff might have thought to ask about that before running it in the paper of record. Or maybe they did. Nobody reads the retractions….)

And McWilliams is also called out in this (generally favorable) Publishers Weekly review:

At times, McWilliams shortchanges his own arguments by failing to disclose the financial or institutional backing of his sources (including various talking heads, esoteric-sounding think tanks, and scientific journals), leaving readers to comb extensive footnotes and web links to determine how the evidence stacks up.

If  McWilliams’ goal has been to ruffle the feathers of alternative agriculture advocates everywhere, he has succeeded admirably.  Mr. Google turns up many angry responses to his sometimes shady polemics.

This one, by Tom Laskowy, pegs McWilliams as as a willing participant in the FUDosphere (FUD standing for Fear Uncertainty Doubt), a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

The FUD-osphere includes doctors who perform industry-funded research to demonstrate the safety of new drugs (Vioxx, anyone?). It includes crackpot scientists and historians, like James McWilliams, who has an op-ed in the NYT in defense of factory-farmed pork—shown to be fiction by Marion Nestle and and Civil Eats. McWilliams has a history with this kind of thing—he authored a deeply flawed article in Slate —debunked here—accusing organic agriculture of responsibility for the presence of heavy metals in soil. Meanwhile, he has written a forthcoming book about the evils and dangers of local food. Really.

In a review of his Just Food, also in Grist, Stephanie Ogburn identifies McWilliams’ modus operandi:

Again and again, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that McWilliams creates fanatical straw men in order to make his own presentation of facts seem like a rational alternative. “The problems that I have with organic agriculture have less to do with how it is currently practiced than with the inflated claim that it’s the only alternative to today’s wasteful conventional production,” he writes. But do any serious proponents seeking more sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture claim this?

OK. To the subject at hand, the “myth” of grass-fed beef. McWilliams’ point is not wrong. It just does not merit being treated as a sensational revelation.
The news peg is pretty dramatic: one particular strain of E. coli bacteria, O157:H7, has been present in several massive recalls of beef, most recently Monday’s recall of 864,000 pounds of ground beef by California’s Huntington Meat Packing.
McWilliams accepts that the acidic stomach of grain-fed cattle is capable of spawning up to a million times more acid-resistant E. coli than grass-fed cattle, as studies at the beginning of the decade demonstrated.  However, he points out that more recent studies have shown “that grass-fed cows … become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle.” This is not an unimportant fact (though  it ignores the important context of cleanliness at slaughter–see below).   But McWilliams takes it as earth-shattering, and  as an opportunity to deliver a knockout blow to his favorite straw man:
The point in dredging up these studies … [is]  a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be dangerous.
Here comes the giant leap in logic: a loose claim by a purveyor of grass-fed beef  “offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster.”Ah, the foodie, “the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people” of Caitlin Flanagan’s fevered dreams. Wealthy, trendy, elitist, and ultimately dangerous. Honestly, I am not always nuts about the pretentiousness of foodie culture. But there is nothing monolithic about it. Certainly, not everyone opting out of industrial agriculture can be tarred with the foodie brush either. Quite simply, there is no foodie orthodoxy, or dogma.
And that is the case with regard to the dangers, or potential dangers, of eating any kind of food. I know there are risks of salmonella even with my free-range poached eggs, but I still like them  a little runny. Just because I raise my own beef doesn’t mean there are no food safety issues to consider when serving it rare or bleu. I’ll take my chances. We all will.
At this point, those of us who are choosing alternatives are doing it not because we think we have hit on the final solution to the world’s food problems. Opting out is also in large part a protest, a refusal to buy into an industrial food system that is cruel, inefficient, unsustainable and in many ways toxic. So we still have to be careful regarding E. coli. Thank you. We knew that.
Facts are facts, and I’m sure Dr. McWilliams only toils in the service of the Truth, but one wonders how loud a splash an associate professor from Texas State would have made if his edgy, contrarian posturing wasn’t so reassuring to the corporations and trade associations that control industrial agriculture today.
Update: Another important point from

Whether or not grass-feeding reduces the number and acidity of E. coli in the digestive tract of cattle, there is another undisputed reason that eating grass-fed beef may be safer. Cattle raised on pasture are cleaner at the time of slaughter.

E. coli contamination takes place in the slaughterhouse when manure from an animal comes in contact with meat. The less manure on an animal when it enters the slaughter house, the less likely the meat will become contaminated.

It is difficult to remove all the fecal contamination from feedlot cattle because they stand all day long in dirt and manure. In a recent article in the magazine Meat Marketing and Technology, the associate editor stated that pasture-raised animals were much easier to clean “because they come from small herds raised in relatively clean pastures.” Most U.S. cattle, he said, “are raised in far larger numbers in congested and typically less sanitary feed lots.” (“The Future of Food Safety,” by Joshua Lipsky. Meat Marketing and Technology, April 2001.)

Cryopreservation: Swine of the times

surgery on a sheep
Sheep surgery at the SVF Foundation. photo: New York Times

Is it quibbling to question  the New York Times’ decision to run Rare Breeds, Frozen in Time in the Dining and Wine section, instead of the Science Times?

The story is about the SVF Foundation, a livestock preservation farm/lab that freezes and stores the sperm and embryos of heritage breeds. The writer, Barry Estabrook, does a good job in sketching out the potential catastrophe underlying current industrial livestock techniques, which (in)breeds so aggressively for value-adding uniform characteristics that it weakens the genetic makeup of popular lines. Holsteins, for example, “make up 93 percent of America’s dairy herd. Fewer than 20 champion bulls are responsible for half the genes,” according to the Holstein Association USA.

“Think of this as a safety valve program,” said Dr. George Saperstein, the [SVF] foundation’s chief scientific adviser, who is chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “If there was a disaster, if something like the potato famine of livestock ever hit, these frozen embryos [of selected heritage breeds] would be made available, and in one generation we would be back in business.”

Peter Borden, SVF’s executive director, explains the obvious advantages heritage breeds present. They “have not been continuously ‘improved’ by humans…. They have been shaped by natural survival-of-the-fittest forces and can get along without human intervention.”

What a concept. An animal unimproved by man! This is in marked contrast to the modern “standardized”  factory hog as portrayed in Nathaneal Johnson’s terrific 2006 Harper’s article Swine of the times: The making of the modern pig. (Such a good title. Couldn’t resist stealing it.)

The goal of modern factory livestock farming is the same for pork, beef, chicken, whatever. The business model, based as it is on efficiency and massive scale, finds it desirable to have “standardized” animals that grow at predictable rates and produce predictably uniform meat. The uniformity is necessary for, among other things, the slaughterhouse assembly line, one of the highest expressions of the deranged genius of industrial agriculture.  Writes Johnson, “As swine carcasses move down the conveyor belt, at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota, packing plant, they hit a curved knife, which slices the cylindrical loin from the inside of the body cavity. If the animals aren’t just the right proportions, the knife will hit the wrong spot, wasting meat or cutting into bone.”

That dystopian assembly line was the single image that stayed with me, and creeped me out, since I first read Johnson’s article.  Of course there are no tradeoffs for this uniformity, right? Wellllllll….. Writes Johnson:

The modern pig is so susceptible to disease that producers must take extreme measures to transform their barns into pathogen-free bubbles. The pigs are vulnerable because they live in close quarters; and because they are genetically uniform, a bug that breaches the defenses of one pig’s immune system can hop to the next. A bacterium stowing away between a traveling boar’s toes could wipe out half a herd.

Johnson paints the most vivid and frightening picture of modern industrial agriculture I’ve come across. It would give PETA-sympathetic folks conniptions.

In just a little more than a decade, the modern hog industry has produced a tower of efficiency-maximizing products, one stacked atop the next, each innovation fixing the problem the last fix created. It is a monumental if somewhat haphazard structure, composed of slatted floors and aluminum crates, automatic sorting scales and mechanized wet-dry feeders. It is constructed of Genepacker sows, Tylan antibiotic feed, Agro-Clean liquid detergent, Argus salmonella vaccine, Goldenpig foam-tipped disposable AI catheters, CL Sow Re-placer milk substitute, and Matrix estrus synchronizer.

Brilliant system, right? What could go wrong?

Sorry, I digressed a bit as I revisited “Swine of the times.” (Really a must-read, and it’s not behind the famous Harper’s firewall, for all you cheapskates who don’t subscribe to the world’s best magazine). Back to the Times article. It’s well worth a look, and the companion slide show is good too.  I just found it a little odd that the emphasis at the top of the article went on about “cutting-edge restaurants”* and “the next food trend” when much bigger issues, like the precariousness of the  food supply, are really what’s at stake here.


* and speaking of “cutting-edge restaurants”: when did it become conventional to prepend the chef/proprietor’s name to every mention? “David Schuttenberg’s Cabrito in the West Village, Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago and Tom Douglas’s Lola.” Annoying! I take off my hat to the restaurant PR flacks who made this a matter of journalistic policy at the Times.


Detroit as the canary in the coal mine

Diego Rivera mural
"deities waiting to reclaim the world"

Marcy Wheeler has an interesting post on “the increasingly urgent efforts to turn Detroit back into an agricultural bread basket.”

Apparently, companies are buying up large abandoned chunks of the Motor City with the idea of turning the lots into “a large-scale commercial farm enterprise.”  Another, better established (and just plain better)  model involves the rapidly growing network of community gardens, some of which feed students in over forty city schools.

Marcy’s conclusion echoes some of my thinking recently: that, like it or not, we might well return to being a nation of farmers. The question is what kind of farmers will we be?

Detroit has long been a symbol of America’s industrial might. And yet, quickly, it has become a symbol not only of decay, but of the earth reclaiming the land. Frankly, I’m in favor of using Detroit’s vacant space for farming (though I prefer it to be organic, small scale farming). But if Detroit is the canary in the coal mine of industrial society, we need to start preparing to return to an agricultural way of life.

For more, there’s this wonderful Harper’s essay by the great Rebecca Solnit, Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape. “Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green.”

Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.

Solnit concludes with this bit, about an “odd masterpiece,” the massive Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts (“painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world [Edsel Ford, who commissioned the piece]”):

That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.

Scroll to top