Posts Tagged ‘pink slime

Grass-Fed Gas

» June 21st, 2013

 

Here’s a copy of my New York Times article on grass-fed beef, which ran in April 2012. It’s a distillation from research I’m doing for my book Modern Savage. In a chapter that I recently finished, I demonstrate how the logistics of grass-fed farming won’t even work to ensure this method’s status as niche approach, much less a standard alternative, to raising cattle for food. In this sense, it’s much more detailed than what you’ll find below and what was in my more recent Slate article on Allan Savory. In any case, I had a piece on fish that I was planning to run today (and will likely run tomorrow), but a reader’s comment suggested that I post this piece instead and, as Mountain observed in a recent comment, it’s my blog. Sorry if this post is tedious. If you’re bored, you can always skip back to the “sexism and PETA” discussion, which is still smoldering, from two days ago. 

April 12, 2012

The industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.

There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animalsinstead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock. My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely. But most people upset by factory farming have turned instead to meat, dairy and eggs from nonindustrial sources. Indeed, the last decade has seen an exciting surge in grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options. These alternatives typically come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production. They appeal to consumers not only because they reject the industrial model, but because they appear to be more in tune with natural processes.

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.

The economics of alternative animal systems are similarly problematic. Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn’t last. These businesses — no matter how virtuous in intention — would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.

All this said, committed advocates of alternative systems make one undeniably important point about the practice called “rotational grazing” or “holistic farming”: the soil absorbs the nutrients from the animals’ manure, allowing grass and other crops to grow without the addition of synthetic fertilizer. As Michael Pollan writes, “It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.” In other words, raising animals is not only sustainable, but required.

But rotational grazing works better in theory than in practice. Consider Joel Salatin, the guru of nutrient cycling, who employs chickens to enrich his cows’ grazing lands with nutrients. His plan appears to be impressively eco-correct, until we learn that he feeds his chickens with tens of thousands of pounds a year of imported corn and soy feed. This common practice is an economic necessity. Still, if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.

Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).

Farmers could avoid this waste by exploiting animals only for their manure, allowing them to live out the entirety of their lives on the farm, all the while doing their own breeding and growing of feed. But they’d better have a trust fund.

Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.

The Amnesia-ville Horror

» June 12th, 2012

Pink Slime!

I’m sick and tired of hearing stories about the disgusting aspects of industrial animal agriculture. I know, I know. It’s important to broadcast these messages—pink slime!, E.Coli! cows eating chicken poop! And, I know, people need to hear the straight dope on factory farming. Still, these stories get on my nerves for at least two reasons.

First, they’re redundant, and their redundancy is alarming. It’s alarming not because the stories themselves are horrific (which they are), but because the muckrakers delivering these messages act as if they’re unearthing some deep dark secret and the consumers hearing the messages act as if it’s never been said before. It’s like we’re living in Amnesia-ville.

Folks! We’ve been bombarded with nauseating narratives about the evils of factory farming for over 40 years. The fact that we have not, as a collective gesture of consumer outrage, monkey wrenched these hellholes into oblivion speaks either to the human tendency to procrastinate or, worse, our pathological indifference.  At some point you have to wonder: are journalists hacking away at this door to no avail?

Well, they may be, as my second point of contention suggests: I despise the way that supposed food activists take these stories and cynically use them to justify a transition to small-scale animal agriculture. This one really galls me because, in making such a suggestion, the so-called activists are doing nothing more than feeding the monster they aim to starve. They fail to realize that all the monster needs to thrive is a cultural acceptance of eating animals. The activists, in their small-farm fetishization, do absolutely nothing to confront this pervasive acceptance. In fact, they only encourage it. In so doing, they encourage factory farming.

We’ll never beat the devil at his own game. Industrial agriculture is not in the least bit threatened when earnest “muckraking” journalists come on the radio or print long stories urging concerned consumers to avoid factory farmed meat in favor of “humanely raised” and “sustainably produced” options. To think the big guys are threatened is a joke. The factory farms will always ensure that the small fetishized farms are never anything more than boutique options for foodies, culinary libertarians, and pin-heads who peck away at their Mac’s in college town coffee shops (oops, that’s me).

The factory farms can ensure their dominance for two simple reasons: consolidation and scale. I don’t like this fact one bit, but it’s a fact—subsidies notwithstanding, it’s cheaper and quicker and more efficient to raise animals in concentrated conditions on a large scale. These measures lead to cheaper animals products and cheaper animal products will, as sure as gravity, lead to the mass consumption of cheap meat. Unless small-scale farms have a plan to upend the most basic principle of classical economics–not to mention human nature–their endorsement of eating animals will continue to be, however inadvertently–an endorsement of factory farming.  They will, of course, deny this.

And they will, of course, be deluding themselves. Worse, they’ll be harming animals. Indeed, their delusions are just as complicit in the senseless killing of billions of animals as are the factory farms they claim to hate so vehemently.  And that gets on my nerves. A lot.