Monday, May 09, 2011

We Can’t Afford to Look Away

Copious column inches have been devoted recently to secrecy laws that are being proposed and voted upon in state legislatures to protect Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from unflattering media attention. “Whistle blower” laws in Iowa, Minnesota, and Florida would make it a felony offense to gain employment for the purpose of producing videos documenting the realities of food animal production. The New York Times editorial board had this to say in late April:

“Exposing the workings of the livestock industry has been an undercover activity since Upton Sinclair’s day. Nearly every major improvement in the welfare of agricultural animals, as well as some notable improvements in food safety, has come about because someone exposed the conditions in which they live and die.”

Just this winter nutcases in Montana introduced a law that would allow representatives to carry concealed weapons in state capitol buildings. Do we find it surprising that states would also want to protect the sociopathic behavior behind closed doors of animal factories?

The CAFO industry and its evil twin, big agriculture, have been mucking with free speech, freedom of information, and basic democratic rights for over a decade. Oprah Winfrey was dragged through a prolonged and expensive lawsuit in the late 1990s for saying she had changed her mind about eating hamburgers after learning about industry feeding practices.

When sifting through 6,000 images for possible publication in CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, we learned that Montana, North Dakota, and Kansas had already passed laws making it illegal to photograph a food animal production operation without consent of the owner. Thirteen states had passed “veggie libel laws” making it a criminal offense to critique a food production operation. Needless to say, the 450 photographs and 30 essays that made the final cut were carefully vetted.

Many reactions to the images that finally appeared in CAFO follow similar lines: “it’s so heavy,” “I can’t get past the beginning,” of “I’d just rather not know.” A classroom of Bradford University political science students described the photographic content as “very intense.” Please consider this. Of the sixty-plus photographers that contributed images to the book, the largest by number came from photo agencies: the Associated Press, Corbis, Reuters, Alamy, and others. These photographers had permission to enter slaughterhouses, feedlots, and hog factories. Do you think they were shown the most down and dirty or the best of the best?

Facing the importation of the U.S. mega-dairy model into the United Kingdom, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) sent a video team to America’s largest milk producing state, California, to see what they might be up against. The WSPA researchers were appalled at how easy it was to document blatant and abysmal animal welfare conditions. Should they be classified as “agro-terrorists” as the new anti-whistle blower laws proposed by industry suggests? Or should they be thanked for showing us a situation so desperately in need of improvement? After a prolonged campaign, the UK mega dairy withdrew its pollution permit—at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, in January of 2011, the Idaho legislature voted 61-7 to keep the public from knowing how dairy waste is handled. One wonders how legislators—charged with protecting the public good—can possibly pass a measure that prohibits its voters from being informed about something as potentially toxic as fecal floods of CAFO manure that can penetrate their drinking wells and groundwater.

These are Orwellian times. Many local governments have lost the ability to decide on whether or not to allow a CAFO in their communities. Those decisions are now made instead by state departments of agriculture, which are largely ruled by industry. Legislators turn their backs on freedom of speech and freedom of information to protect shit spewing polluters.

Citizens can’t afford to look away from the realities of basic economic production systems, whether we are talking about food, energy, shelter or anything else. What you don’t know can at least make you an accomplice in something you might not agree with, such as the abuse of other living creatures or ecosystems for the sake of a cheap meal. More than that, the democratic rights that we hold dear are ultimately at stake.

Is protecting the Fast Food Nation worth that price?

See also:

"Collaborative Approach Sets UK Apart on Animal Welfare"

Monday, May 02, 2011

A West Coast Healthy Food Uprising

The West Coast is a place where, on a rainy winter night, hundreds of people turn out to discuss food policy. People understand the connection between healthy food and community health. They see local and regional food as an engine to revitalize economies. Still I am often asked what audience members can do to affect change in the food system.

To my mind, individual action takes place in radiating circles, starting with the personal and moving out to the local, regional, state, national and global. I am increasingly drawn to the personal and local, where influence and outcomes are most powerful and tangible. Raise your own fruits, vegetables, or chickens and you know exactly what goes into the entire process. Work on a campaign to protect open space or build a school garden and you can have personal contact and investment.

Things are not so clear or accessible at the national level. The Farm Bill, driver of federal food policy, is so complex that it is hard to know where to begin. Absent campaign finance reform, you are swimming with the sharks: grain monopolies, corn growers, farm bureaus, livestock associations, sugar lobbies, ethanol processers that pour billions of dollars into the political process.

We can’t let this intimidate us from righting a broken food system. By pulling back to the regional level, it might be possible to form an alliance of concerned eaters with political power at the national level. In January 2011, the City of Seattle approved a Farm Bill platform. Given the growing awareness of the importance of food and farm policy on the West Coast, it is reasonable to expect that city councils in Olympia, Portland, Eugene, Ashland, Ukiah, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Los Angeles and all the way down to San Diego may carefully consider and eventually sign on to a similar document. Its main tenets share a lot in common with a Farm Bill platform drafted by Roots of Change in Los Angeles in November 2010:

• a health centered food system;

• sustainable agriculture practices;

• community and regional prosperity and resilience;

• equitable access to healthy food;

• social justice and equity;

• systems approach to policy making.

While the Farm Bill is the Big Kahuna in the food and agriculture system, there are other forceful unifying levers. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2, an animal welfare initiative that will ban three forms of egregious confinement systems: cages for laying hens; confinement stalls for pregnant sows; and veal crates for male dairy calves. Proposition 2 can’t be dismissed as a purely California phenomenon. It passed with 63 percent of the vote. Seven states have now banned certain animal confinement systems, and the Humane Society of the United States has introduced similar initiatives in two more key states: Washington and Oregon.

In addition to unified Farm Bill platforms, imagine the entire West Coast agreeing on advanced animal welfare standards. Most citizens believe that food animals deserve humane treatment while they are alive, yet there are no laws at the national level to protect livestock during their production cycles. Intervention is still possible at the state level.

Health practitioners are also joining the food policy reform movement, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other nutritionally related ailments ravaging adults and children in their communities. They are following the lead of innovative programs like the California Farmers’ Market Consortium that links the food stamp program (SNAP) with regional growers of fruits and vegetables in 60 farmers markets, from Santa Rosa to San Diego. In key markets, SNAP recipients can receive up to double the value of their purchases of fruits and vegetables—money that goes right into the hands of farmers. They can also watch demonstrations on how to cook and eat more healthfully. Doctors are collecting data on the medical benefits of such programs to analyze their effectiveness.

Coastal livestock producers and consumers interested in high quality, pasture-raised animal food products are united around a common concern: a lack of slaughter facilities within reasonable driving distances from production centers. In years past, each large town had some sort of slaughter facility. But decades of massive consolidation have devastated local processing capabilities. Small-scale slaughter facilities are one of the crucial missing links in local food system capabilities. In California, for example, only a handful remain. Just as Farm Bill dollars once built the giant monoculture farming infrastructures and Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation industry that dominate today’s food system, it can do the same for the modern pastured livestock movement. Assistance can come in the form of value added producer grants, loans, important research, regulations tailored to small-scale facilities—to complement necessary private investment. Reformers could ask for 10 new West Coast processing facilities, for example, in the upcoming Farm Bill as a pilot project.

In a relatively short amount of time Washington, Oregon, and California could become a regional force in the national dialog leading up to the next Farm Bill. If we citizens don’t impact policy at the national level, there are plenty of agribusinesses and food manufacturers already working to set the rules and spend taxpayer money for us. As the old adage says, we reap what we sow. The West Coast can set its own table.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Industry Doesn't Want You to Know About Animal Factories

See no evil, hear no evil, eat no evil. This seems to be the operating principle behind a slew of recent legal initiatives aimed at sheltering animal factory agriculture operations from public view.

State legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota and Florida are now considering bills that would make it a criminal offense to gain employment for the purposes of videotaping what goes on the behind warehouse walls of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. In March, the Iowa House of Representatives passed such an anti- “whistle blower” measure, co-written by the Iowa Poultry Association, which is now before the State Senate.

Pre-emptive legal strikes by the CAFO industry to put a chilling effect on anyone considering tarnishing its public image are hardly surprising. Industrial animal food producers are reeling from a series of shocking undercover videos that expose the abuse and suffering on the disassembly lines of slaughterhouses and inside warehouses crammed with hogs, laying hens, and meat birds. Such imagery is hard to shake from your subconscious. (Just this week a video was released of a sick calf getting killed with a pickaxe.) Opinion polls consistently show that Americans are increasingly concerned about animal welfare and health standards, and often willing to pay more for them.

While the industry would like us to believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, we are barely six months removed from last summer’s recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella contamination from just two CAFO operations in Iowa. In response, people flocked to farmers markets, specialty retailers, and other venues to purchase free-range, organic, and cage-free alternatives.

In fact, industrial animal agriculture has already made bold assaults against First Amendment rights. In three states—Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota—it is illegal to photograph a factory farm without permission of the owner. Thirteen states have passed agricultural disparagement laws—a.k.a. veggie libel laws—that restrict what can be said about perishable food products. None of these laws have been challenged in federal court. The Texas Cattlemen’s Association, however, engaged Oprah Winfrey in a prolonged legal battle in the late 1990s for claiming on television that she had been “stopped cold from eating another burger” after learning about cattle feeding procedures from reformed rancher Howard Lyman. The popular talk show host had both sufficient resources and determination to fight and ultimately won the decision.

Numerous states have passed Common Farming Exemptions, which essentially allow the industry to determine animal cruelty statutes by defining them as standard practices. Does this sound like the fox guarding the henhouse? While the welfare of our pets is legally protected, there are no federal laws that presently govern the raising of food animals. Food animals are protected during transport (very hard to enforce) and during slaughter (though this doesn’t include the 9 billion chickens raised in the United States each year.)

The real question citizens and our elected representatives should be asking is, what do the animal factories have to hide, and do we really want to be part of such a clandestine food system? Is a cheap bacon cheeseburger or bucket of chicken worth the loss of democratic freedoms? We are talking about food production, after all, not missile defense.

Dr. Temple Grandin, animal behavior specialist at Colorado State University and long-time consultant to the livestock industry, argues in her most recent book, Animals Make Us Human, for greater transparency. Animal food producing operations, she suggests, should be able to pass a random inspection test, where a non-expert can visit and intuit how well animals are being treated. The best facilities, in her opinion, have video cameras streaming at all times, allowing for constant monitoring. Dr. Grandin is far from a radical animal welfare activist, and remains one of the most respected people in the world on such matters.

Animal agriculture impacts the planet in powerful ways. Tens of billions of food animals consume vast amounts of feed, generate massive volumes of waste, and make cheap fat and cholesterol laden meat, eggs, and dairy products the centerpiece rather than a vital component of every meal.

Proponents have been arguing for years that industrial food production is necessary to feed the word’s ever-increasing population. Essentially we are being told that the CAFO industry is too big to fail. Research increasingly shows that modern sustainable agriculture operations can be equally or more productive than conventional ones: without federal subsidies, environmental impacts, and dubious health implications—or infringements upon constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

Organic and sustainable agriculture practitioners have spent the last thirty years with an open source approach to information about farming techniques. For the most part, what they have learned the hard way about chemical-free, soil enhancing agriculture is out in the open for anyone to learn. Certified organic and biodynamic producers are required to pay fees to third-parties to audit their practices.

Recent moves to pre-empt the public from learning about the sometimes unspeakable conditions of modern intensive livestock operations are just the tip of the iceberg. Local communities are being stripped of their powers to determine zoning and land use concerning agricultural operations. Why aren’t local citizens permitted the right to decide whether a CAFO can be sited in their community in states like Illinois and Iowa?

There is a lot more information that the consuming public might find useful about industrial animal food production: the quantity of antibiotics used during a given production cycle; the exact contents of feed rations; the quantities, content and dates of air and water emissions from a CAFO; the amount of federal subsidies that support a particular operation. All are concerns with real public consequences.

We all have to eat. But we also have a right to know. Food should not come at the expense of animal welfare, the health of someone else’s community, or perhaps most importantly, our democratic freedoms.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Land of Stinkin’: When a Mega Dairy Takes Over

Imagine a series of pits that, if combined, would cover an area 40 acres in size carved 20 feet deep. Laid out as a perfect square, each side is 1,320 feet long, enough to hold 16 football fields. Now imagine it full of millions of gallons of festering manure from over 5,000 dairy cows plunked down into rural Jo Daviess County in northern Illinois. Imagine also, that these cesspools would be excavated from a porous Karst geological formation, with the propensity to percolate directly into the groundwater, along with a cocktail of nitrates,phosphorous, hydrogen sulfide, bacteria, and other substances like antibiotic drugs.

If your state’s Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t bother fulfilling its obligations to permit such potential pollution hazards under the Clean Water Act, you have little choice but to start your own citizen activist organization. For three years, the HOMES group (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) has been emptying their pockets for attorneys fees, organizing rallies, documenting abuses, and constructing a legal case against a California mega-dairy that wants to—as they see it—invade their community, an agricultural region with many legacy farms spanning multiple generations.

The challenge before the HOMES group is made all the more difficult because Illinois communities have lost the ability to refuse such a siting of an industrial animal factory operation in their area for concerns of protecting their own public health. “Local control” over such decisions, in Illinois as in many other states, has been relegated to the state level. In fact, just this week a HOMES' group appeal was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, affirming that the state's Department of Agriculture has the ultimate say in CAFO siting decisions, and stripping citizens' rights to sue for improper implementation or enforcement of regulations.

I participated in a community discussion about CAFOs sponsored by the HOMES group last week. It was an opportunity to listen to talks from long-time activists Dr. Kendall Thu of Northern Illinois University (contributor of a great essay to my CAFO book) and Dr. John Ikerd, retired agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, whose work greatly informed the book’s pieces on the community impacts of industrial animal factory agriculture. I also had a good chance to meet other committed anti-CAFO activists, such as grain farmer Karen Hudson and public interest attorney Danielle Diamond, both with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

This leg of the CAFO outreach campaign started about an hour west of Chicago, driving west and south through the Land of Lincoln, known by the anti-CAFO activists as the Land of Stinkin’. There are over 3,200 CAFOs in the state, primarily hog and dairy operations. To pump a steady stream of feed into these protein factories, Illinois produces a staggering amount of corn. We drove for hours and hours at the 65 mph speed limit, passing field after monoculture field of corn, fields right up to the highway, right up to farm houses, right next to mutated suburban developments with barely a forest or hedgerow or clump of trees in sight. As they say, planted “fencerow to fencerow.” In this day of soaring commodity prices, soaring demand for animal feed and ethanol, it seems the only way an Illinois farmer would maintain any habitat at all is if the government (aka taxpayers) pay them for it.

The mega-dairy that the HOMES citizen activist group is fighting against is owned by A. J. Bos, a corporate agribusiness from California. It has already established one of the country’s largest dairies in northeastern Oregon, Threemile Canyon, which I have visited and am told is now the third largest emitter of airborne ammonia in the nation—no small achievement if true. One of the departing acts of public service of the Bush administration was to remove Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on reporting of air emissions including ammonia, an airborne pollutant and health hazard that can literally travel for miles from a livestock operation. The CAFO industry has been given a get out of jail free card when it comes to Clean Air Act violations.

This large-scale industrial assault is set against the backdrop of the unraveling meltdown of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and I can’t help thinking of the out of control scale of our industrial operations. The CAFO industry is essentially telling us they’re too big to fail, we need their massive confinement systems if we want a cheap and abundant food supply. The costs of polluting a community’s groundwater, eroding their living standards, degrading their air quality and filling the countryside with the odors of thousands of cows producing more manure than milk on a daily basis and never touching a blade of grass are simply the price of cheap dairy products. What they don’t say is that the jobs a CAFO actually brings in to an area will most likely be very few and low paying. It will also spell the end for numerous small and mid-size independent producers in the region. And in time, once a community is opened up to the animal factory industry, it begins a downward economic spiral with few other development options.

As the HOMES group fights with every breath to prevent becoming an ecological sacrifice zone, it appears that the owners of California-based A. J. Bos have no intentions of living anywhere near the operation. State and federal regulators have made the expansion of such filthy businesses possible. It is humbling to witness such a tragic abandonment of civic defense.

Glimmers of hope remain. Although construction of the mega-dairy is well underway, the barns remain incomplete and no animals are confined yet. Last October, a bright purple leachate of rotting silage, applied onto fields of the A. J. Bos land, contaminated a tributary to the Apple River. As a result, the US EPA is now questioning whether this CAFO can possibly be a “zero discharge facility” as the corporation has alleged. (That's essentially the way the system works. A CAFO promises they are not going to discharge, and the government believes them.) Meanwhile, a second citizens’ activist group, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, is successfully petitioning the US EPA to withdraw the Illinois EPA’s Clean Water Act permitting authority because of their failure to properly regulate existing CAFOs. The pressure is now on the Illinois EPA to step up their regulatory oversight or risk US EPA taking over administration of the Clean Water Act in the state.

In northern Illinois, and across the country, everyday citizens are doing the work of the state and federal government to prevent a complete fouling of their communities by industrial animal factories. This is hardly the time to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, a pursuit senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle are currently attempting. In many states, the Clean Water Act remains one of the only tools that offers citizens any kind of legal recourse and environmental protection from installations such as shit spewing absentee landowner corporate mega-dairies. In an age of increasing voluntary corporate compliance, community self-preservation hangs by barely a thread.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Tour de Stench

Packed cozily inside a pickup, six of us are heading down a two-lane country highway through a Western Kentucky landscape blanketed in snow. We’re on what our tour organizer, Aloma Dew, calls a “Tour de Stench,” exploring one of the United States’ increasing number of animal factory hotspots.

At one point, our driver, Gene Nettles, centers the truck in the road, tires evenly straddling the broken yellow line. “I’m in Tennessee and you’re in Kentucky,” he says to me, with a chuckle.

Industrial poultry houses have long occupied this lightly populated rural area, supplying the region’s two massive processing plants with a steady stream of factory farmed meat birds. This rise of poultry CAFOs here has been intentional — It's not called Kentucky Fried Chicken for nothing. Among the rolling hills are vast fields of federally subsidized corn and soybeans. These are the primary feed ingredients for fattening broiler chickens, now crammed as many as 80,000 inside the newest windowless, temperature-controlled warehouses. The stubble from last fall’s corn and soybean harvests is still visible under the recent snowfall, pricking up in geometric patterns. On the bare branches of the few remaining woodlots that edge the fields, bird nests are everywhere. Hawks stare down from perches, scanning the ground for prey.

Spurred on by a nearby Tennessee hog corporation, Fulton County, western Kentucky is also becoming a magnet for industrial pork production. The Tennessee-based Tosh Farms corporation is what is known in industry terms as an “integrator.” They contract with Kentucky growers to raise hogs to their exact specifications. In essence, it’s more like a boarding arrangement. Growers construct houses at no small cost — $200,000 each I am told — then cram them full of animals that the integrator actually owns. The contractors are paid a fee for successfully raising pigs to slaughter weight. The downer animals — dead, dying, diseased, and disabled — and the vast amounts of waste the animals generate over their short lifetimes become the grower’s responsibility.

My companions tell me that integrator Jimmy Tosh was attracted to this area because of Kentucky’s comparatively lax enforcement of water quality regulations and favorable tax laws. Somehow, despite the massive amounts of waste emitted from such intensive concentrations of animals, new CAFOs are being issued zero discharge permits. The only possible explanation for how such daily volumes of urine and feces could possibly disappear without environmental or community impact is “magic.”

But to my co-travelers, these CAFOs and their associated problems are anything but magical. It is more typical that whenever and wherever a high concentration of CAFOs appears among rural populations, conflict and community strife also enter the picture — pitting neighbor against neighbor, at times family member against family member. This is also the case at hand. Scrunched in the front seat with me is Max Wilson, a conventional grain farmer whose 900-acre conventional corn and soybean farm is surrounded by three hog CAFOs, all within less than two miles of his home. His neatly cropped hair starting to gray, Wilson is tall and slender and looks more like a school board president than what one might regard as an environmental crusader. In fact Wilson is a local school board member. But he is also one of a dozen neighbors involved in a lawsuit against Tosh Farms. The impacts have accumulated over time —oppressive odors, declining property values, CAFOs sited closer and closer to residences. He and his neighbors felt they had no choice but to take legal action.

Soon we are face to face, and nostril to stench as it were, with one of the hog CAFOs at issue. Two long white windowless buildings, huge circular fans on their side walls, are sunk down in the snowy landscape. These are finishing barns, where young hogs are sent to eat until they reach slaughter weight — approximately 260 pounds. I am told that hog barn operators in these parts often file applications for pollution discharge permits by declaring just a few animals shy of the official EPA designation of a CAFO, which would be 2,500 for hogs over 55 pounds. (This strategy of cramming animals just under the minimum for EPA designation as a CAFO is being adopted in other areas as well.)

These barns also represent a return to an old style of hog CAFO known as a “deep pit,” referring to the 8 foot deep by 100 foot by 200 foot manure catchment directly beneath the building. It’s designed to hold a million gallons of urine and feces. Rather than first pumping it into an adjacent lagoon, the hogs live on top of their own waste. Gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are vaporized or blown into the air with fans. The remaining waste is pumped out of the deep pit and plowed into the ground, sprayed onto fields, or distributed by the truckload in shiny stainless 6,000-gallon tankers — often at night. Other fans are used to suck the air out of the CAFO and replace it with outside air. Toxic fumes from beneath the barns could otherwise overwhelm the animals. (There are reports of animals dying just this way due to extended power outages.)

I am about 75 yards downwind from the nearest building and the odor is sour, ammoniated, and nauseating. It fills the truck cab in the few seconds it takes for me to open and close the door to take pictures. Max says he can smell it more than two miles away when the wind blows in the direction of his farm.

In addition to the two hog barns there’s a dead box, a concrete rectangle about the size of a 40-foot ocean shipping container. That’s where the mortalities go to be composted or picked apart by the scavengers. Dead boxes are standard on most of the hog CAFOs I have seen.

This area of rolling hills and wintry farm fields and remnant woodlots seems like it would be quite stunning in the spring time. One can imagine a thoroughly different kind of agriculture. Pastures could be restored to complement the feed grains, with livestock moving about these farms, rather than a complete separation of animals from the outside world and their farmers. Tree plantings could protect the soil and yield food on the hills and on highly erodible lands. One could envision more farmers too, a new generation of people participating in a more diversified agriculture and food system.

Given the recent economic realities of agriculture, where more and more power has been transferred to integrated processors and distributors, it is somewhat understandable that landowners have taken the gamble on these expensive operations. For many, owning a CAFO may mean the difference between survival and foreclosure. Often the payback on such investments can take a decade, however, and the return per animal can be marginal. Then there’s the issue of quality of life. If neighbors are complaining, one has to wonder what it’s like to actually live on one of these operations.

Faster than we know it, our tour de stench is over. I am left thinking, as I so often am, that it really matters whose side you are on in these seemingly intractable battles. I am on the side of the farmers and the animals and healthy farm communities, even if our food ultimately costs a bit more. No amount of cheap protein is worth tearing away the fabric of rural culture by stinking up the countryside and raising animals as if they were assembly line objects. Somehow we must find a way forward. We don’t need this kind of agriculture to feed the world as is so often claimed to justify the concentration of filth and misery these systems embody.

I believe the collective wisdom and desire for change is out there among us.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Honoring The Food Animals On Your Plate

From the cream in our Monday morning coffee to the roast chicken at Sunday night dinner, we accrue an incalculable debt to food animals. We depend on them for nourishment. We gather festively around the cooking of a turkey or ham during holidays. Yet many people do not realize that most of the animals that grace our tables are the victims of harsh suffering long before slaughter.

Consider the modern turkey. It is far removed from the wild, native bird that the pilgrims roasted for those original Thanksgiving gatherings. Today’s conventional turkey, the Broad Breasted White, is an entirely industrial creature. It is bred to grow freakishly quickly and raised on grain inside massive buildings. Most male turkeys, or Toms, become so breast heavy, they can barely stand up – and certainly can’t reproduce. Artificial insemination is the only way this man-made species survives.

Such mass-production meat factories – called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs – exist for most of the animal food products Americans buy: cows, pigs and chickens. At least 90 percent of food animals in the U.S. are raised this way, and other countries are rapidly adopting the CAFO model as well. These enterprises are a perverse inversion of our idea of family farms with pigs rolling in the mud, cows grazing in pastures, roosters crowing from fence posts, and farmers interacting with the animals. At CAFOs, vast numbers of animals—100,000 cows on a feedlot, 30,000 chickens in a broiler shed, 1,000 hogs in a windowless warehouse—are confined in pens or cages, often kept alive with regular doses of antibiotics.

As CAFOs take over the food system, it is clear that there is already plenty of animal protein in our diets. Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese each year, for example, largely because of the flood of cheap milk coming from dairy CAFOs. This is three times the per capita consumption of the 1970s. Cheese is the largest source of saturated fats in our diets, which tend to raise cholesterol levels and are linked to heart disease. Dairy products, meat, poultry, and eggs don’t have to be nearly so cheap or abundant – and yet we are raising 10 billion food animals in the United States every year.

The high costs of factory-farmed foods are being paid for by the animals, rural communities, taxpayers, and the environment. Large-scale animal operations generate the sewage output comparable to a small metropolis. The waste oozing from these highly concentrated production systems fouls the air, land, and water. Sadly, if you purchase animal products from fast food restaurants, supermarkets, big box stores, or other mainstream outlets, there is a strong chance that you are eating at the expense of someone else’s community well-being.

You don’t have to become a vegan or vegetarian to opt out of this system that might best be described as “organized irresponsibility.” (Those are certainly viable options, however.) Some of the country’s best small farmers are demonstrating that traditional methods of livestock production are practical and economically viable. They are raising locally adapted breeds of livestock on pastures where the animals eat a more natural diet, grow more slowly, and naturally socialize. These animals are also raised without routine doses of antibiotics and growth hormones, essential tools in industrial CAFO production. Third-party certification organizations such as Animal Welfare Approved have established standards combined with regular audits to encourage such humane production practices.

Still, labels can be confusing, and some like “natural” and “healthy” are misleading. The best way to know where your food comes from and how it was produced is to know your farmer. Still

The other way to reduce the role of CAFOs is to scale back the amount of meat we consume. Many individuals are simply orienting their meals around more grains and vegetables with smaller portions of higher quality, sustainably sourced meats, dairy, and eggs. Another groundswell is the Meatless Monday campaign, which has already been embraced by chefs, restaurants, food services, k-12 schools, and college campuses.

Attending to the conditions under which your food is raised is a profound way of giving thanks to the animals that nourish you daily. It can also lead to some of the most satisfying meals you’ve ever shared or tasted.


CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories

Grass Pastured Meats

Meatless Mondays

This piece was originally published on Huffington Post.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Confessions of a Reluctant Wonk

First, a confession. I am a reluctant wonk. Despite writing rather extensively about food and agriculture policy, acronyms are not what motivate me in the morning. After about a half an hour of studying something as dense as the Farm Bill, I need a diversion, a few minutes of deep breathing outside with my feet on the ground, or some quality time with Fanny, my Australian shepherd.

I do believe that agriculture is indeed a public good. Food and farm policy are not a necessary evil but a real privilege and opportunity for a country and its people. It is wise to invest in conservation, clean water, soil protection, and habitat enhancement for our collective good. The natural world, well attended, cannot keep pace with the growth demands of the industrial economy and Wall Street. Unfortunately, our rural lands, farm animals, and agriculture workers are being driven by efficiency, industrial concentration, and profit taking. Rather than investing in tangible returns and long-term security, agriculture policy is pushing us toward the brink of collapse on many fronts.

For those who care about healthy food, the Farm Bill is something we all need to digest—even in small helpings. The information is out there, accessible and more organized than ever before, even if the situation is not so rosy. (Check out everyday for a week to get started.)

The Farm Bill is a massive legislation that is revisited every five to seven years. The next renewal is scheduled for 2012 but it could likely drag on into 2013 or beyond. For the last few decades the Farm Bill has been dominated by two primary political forces: a nutrition and hunger bloc that fights for food stamps (now known as SNAP) and other assistance; and the commodity agriculture lobby (corn, cotton, wheat, rice, soybeans, dairy, sugar producers, and concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs). This is your basic quid pro quo. Urban legislators get food assistance for the 40 million Americans facing hunger on a regular basis. Farm country legislators bring home the bacon to huge agribusinesses that are now raking in record profits.

My least favorite of these commodity players hijacking taxpayer dollars are the CAFOs. Not only are their factory animal farms morally reprehensible, they are fouling the air, water and land in the communities where they have taken over and are feasting at the public trough in the process. Their economic model is based upon a steady supply of Farm Bill subsidized feeds—corn and soybeans—that has saved them billions of dollars over the last decade. (This is well documented in a report by Timothy Wise and Elanor Starmer from Tufts University). In 2002, the CAFO industry began raiding precious Farm Bill conservation dollars to pay for nasty manure lagoons and waste management infrastructure. A single CAFO investor can qualify for $450,000 in Environmental Quality Incentive Program dollars to pay for his or her own pollution compliance. (Read Martha Noble’s essay in The CAFO Reader for a more detailed summary.)

One would think that once the CAFOs and other commodity producers get their 10 billion to 20 billion dollars each year from the taxpayers, their lobbyists would be content to let the rest of the players fight over the scraps: a few billion here for conservation, a few million here for rebuilding local food capacity, a few million for those organic farmers who pay high certification costs just to prove they are doing the right thing. But agribusiness is not content. They are fighting for every last cent of Farm Bill dollars and doing all they can to paint the burgeoning good food movement as fringe and meaningless.

Last year, Senators Mc Cain (R-AZ), Chambliss (R-GA) and Roberts (R-KS) publicly attacked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and a small program named Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. KYF 2 (in Wonk speak) was spending approximately $65 million to rebuild local food systems around the country, including developing new markets in urban areas for rural farmers hoping to expand their businesses. In highly divisive language, the Senators claimed that this money was benefitting organic hobby farmers supplying urban elites at farmers markets, rather than “Production Agriculture.” This is the term for heavily subsidized monoculture commodity farmers that largely grow crops we don’t directly eat. Just to give some perspective on that $65 million Know Your Farmer program budget, Brazilian cotton farmers received $165 million last year from our government in retaliation for past U.S. cotton subsidies deemed illegal by the World Trade Organization. The Senators wrote no nasty letters to the Secretary about those payouts to farmers in another country as far as I know. Then again, there are a lot of cotton farmers in Arizona and Georgia.

Last week the rules were finalized on another 2008 Farm Bill program called the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). One would hope this money would go to protect beautiful farmlands in areas threatened by sprawl and development. But in keeping with their strategy of fighting for every last cent of the Farm Bill pie, agribusiness lobbyists were able to make a CAFO manure lagoon (a cesspool of waste) eligible for protection under Farm and Ranchland Protection Program easements. Maybe there is something I don’t quite understand — such as even small operations have such holding facilities — but somehow this doesn’t seem what the program was intended to preserve. (Read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s report here.)

As you can see, foodies, foodists, healthy food activists, and concerned citizens have no choice but to begin to understand the detailed maze of farm policy. Our challenge is to move from acting individually to developing collective clout. It’s the only way voting with our forks might begin to change the enormous power corporate agribusiness wields over our food system.