The politics of food-8: The cost to animals and our health

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

In the previous post, it was pointed out that the reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals fed on it gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Cows raised on grass take longer to reach slaughter mass (3 to 4 years) than cows raised on richer diets like corn (14-16 months). (p. 71).

But there is a big price that is paid for this faster growth. Corn-fed meat, although now touted by the advertising industry as some sort of high-quality, desirable product, is actually less healthy for us because it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed animals. The recent studies warning of the dangers of eating beef are actually problems associated with corn-fed beef, not grass-fed beef.

Furthermore, cows are ruminants, which mean that they have evolved to be able to convert grass into protein via the rumens in their stomachs. Cows fed a diet of corn that they are not evolved to eat can get very sick in many ways and this has to be combated with antibiotics. (p. 78)

Pollan’s description of what happens to animals kept and fed this way is chilling:

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases – pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio.

Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be as long as their systems can tolerate…[A]nother vet told me the diet would eventually “blow out their livers” and kill them. (p. 78)

It is to deal with these problems that most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a process that is speeding up the evolution of new drug-resistant bacteria. (p. 78)

The need to force feed animals food they are not evolved to eat in conditions that are not natural to them result in the creation of these so-called ‘feedlots’ or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and these are not pretty places.

Pollans describes driving to one such CAFO called Poky Feeders and how the overpowering stench of it hit him long before he reached the pen. A total of 37,000 cattle were housed in cattle pens each holding a hundred or so animals standing or lying around “in a graying mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all.” (p. 66)

Pollan points out how odd it is that food, which is so important to us, is sold purely on the basis of price. There is no reason that much more information about the history of our food could not be given to us so that we could make decisions based on other criteria as well. It would not be hard for the bar codes on our food packages to give information on the conditions under which the food has been produced, to enable consumers to make choices based on ethical values as well.

Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal’s genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc. (p. 244)

But this kind of increased information is being fought by governments and agribusinesses because if more people were aware of the conditions under which these animals were kept, they may rise up and demand improvements, even if they were not vegetarians or animal rights activists.

Most of the meat in our supermarket simply couldn’t withstand that degree of transparency; if the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig’s diet and drug regiment, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring – to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories – “dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc. – about how they were produced. (p. 244, 245)

ADM and Cargill keep their processing plants off-limits to outsiders, as do the big slaughterhouses. USDA regulations are designed for industrial food with its secretive closed facilities and actually hurt small farmers even though they are more transparent.

POST SCRIPT: Japan leading the way on cutting waste

Read how Japan is taking steps to reduce waste and the town of Kamikatsu has zero waste as its goal.

[The mayor of Kamikatsu] also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. “We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it’s used. If it can’t be recycled in any way, then you can’t produce it.”

The town now has an 80-percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. (The US national recycling rate is an average of about 34 percent, with some cities considerably higher.) The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the bus load to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually, or about $76,000, and reducing its CO2 emissions.

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