Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to learn about where your meat comes from.
Perhaps you already know everything about your meat. Perhaps you’ve watched Food, Inc. and seek out local, grassfed or pastured, organic meats. Your job, then, is to find the balance. Keep on reading.
This week we’re talking about CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations, aka “factory farms,” with Kelly the Kitchen Kop. I’m here, as usual, to provide a balanced perspective. When I posted on the moral ramifications to Food, Inc. in Just Food, a reader shared some links from the agricultural perspective. It’s important to remember that many factory farms are still owned by families. When do we divide “family farms” to leave out family farms that happen to be massive?
Conventionally Raised Meat
If you’ve never seen Food, Inc., it’s definitely worth a watch. PBS just aired it a few weeks ago, but unfortunately it’s no longer available on their website. You can see the trailer and read a synopsis here. My down-and-dirty synopsis:
- Big business runs the world of agriculture.
- Factory farms raise unsafe meat and are ruled by big business companies.
- The agricultural world runs on corn. Too many animals eat corn, which takes vast petroleum resources to grow. Cows shouldn’t eat corn, they should be pastured and eat grass.
- America is trying to grow too much food, too fast, and we compromise quality and safety to do it.
- The petroleum (gasoline) used to transport corn to feed the animals is unsustainable. The waste produced by factory farms is too hard to get rid of and is polluting the environment.
- The meat we grow is motivated by the fast food chains, and when the goal is cheap meat, many other aspects suffer.
- Easy access to fast food, i.e. cheap meat, has helped fuel the obesity epidemic. Corn-fed beef is also higher in omega-6s and lower in omega-3s.
- Factory cows stand around in their own manure, are unhealthy, and require vast amounts of antibiotics to avoid illness.
- Factory chickens grow in unsafe conditions, both for the chicken and the environment. They are bred for large breasts and quick growth, unnaturally, and many of them die before they make it to slaughter.
- Factory-farmed meat is a bad choice for an eater, both in nutrition and sustainability.
I think it’s key to remember that Food, Inc. is a documentary, and it is from one perspective. The directors say that they tried to talk to big companies and didn’t get cooperation. I can’t imagine they tried very hard to talk to big factory farmers who are 100% behind their work, because there are many, many who are willing and actively speaking out about their business and craft in the wake of the film.
Food, Inc. uses propaganda well, and I think it’s important for us to remember to separate the slant of the documentary from the facts.
A Perspective from Factory Farmers
Here’s the other side of the story. There are real people who own those factory farms in the midwest, and many of them aren’t as heartless as Food, Inc. would make you think.
- You must listen to this 10-minute sound byte of an incredibly focused, fact-based, and striking interview with a big agriculture farmer about how things have changed for the better in the last 30 years, how he seeks sustainability on his feedlot in Wisconsin, and how his farming practices are much more kind to the environment than the perspective of Food, Inc. After listening, I thought: “This guy is the answer. He’s the balance between Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms and small farms, and the massive factory farms profiled in Food, Inc. He has a massive farm, growing food sustainably. Pollan responded that “this was quite a story.”
- Michele Payn-Knoper wrote a blog post called, “Dear Mr. Pollan, Farming is not a Story,” with links to the above interview and Pollan’s response. Her letter to Pollan is quite different than my letter to Pollan. Her blog is all about big agriculture and has many resources to learn about that perspective. You can also meet two factory farmers in her “Faces of Food, Inc.“
- Safe Food Inc. (link no longer available) provides answers to these questions:
- Can we feed the world using Joel Salatin’s approach?
- How are broiler chickens raised? What kind of space and lighting is included in broiler houses?
- Are chickens today larger than they were in the past?
- I’ve heard that it is possible to convert the world’s agricultural system to the organic or “slow food model.” Is that true?
- “Food, Inc.’s” makers say that thirteen slaughterhouses produce most of the beef in the U.S.: Is that accurate?
- Is corn an unnatural diet for cattle? Is it only fed to cattle because it’s cheap?
- Did feedlots and modern beef production methods encourage the emergence of E. coli O157:H7 as a foodborne illness?
- Can E. coli O157:H7 be eliminated or reduced by feeding cattle grass instead of grain?
- Are pesticides safe? What would happen if we stopped using them?
- What kind of health care is provided to broiler chickens? Are antibiotics used?
- Is antibiotic use among livestock and poultry producers contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans?
- And LOTS more…
**UPDATE: I was appropriately called out in the comments with the point that I didn’t remind you that this site is also filled with propaganda. It is. Truly. And I definitely don’t believe everything they’ll try to get you to believe. I just feel it’s important to hear both sides, turn our brains on high power, and make our own decisions.
- The National Corn Growers Association provides their own propaganda (remember, they’re growing corn!) as a rebuttal to Food, Inc. They nicely slice through the inconsistencies in the film – that’s the part you need to pay attention to – and then provide their own answers. That’s the part you need to read with a close eye, keeping in mind that they’re selling corn.
- Another bit of propaganda from the opposing viewpoint is “What the Experts Say about Modern Food Production.” I think this is what Food, Inc. should have allowed us to see to help us make our own decision.
- You can see a counter documentary, done very fairly, called Food, Inc.: A Nebraska Perspective (link no longer available) from PBS. Click on the video link in the sidebar to watch. A 3,000 cow beef farmer, a large pig farmer, and a natural dairy farmer share their views on Food, Inc. They do a lot of talking without saying much other than, “We’re doing a better job than the video would make you believe,” although about 25 minutes in, they explain how they care for the environment, and that part really gives facts that are different than Food, Inc. would make us believe, about waste management particularly.
- Here’s a piece from the Animal Agriculture Alliance, another group that has a vested interest in avoiding the demise of factory farms:
- Of the two million farms in the United States, 98 percent are family-owned. The average size of a farm is 428 acres. Today, one farmer already provides enough food for 155 people- but the United Nations estimates that global food production will need to double by 2050 to meet the ever-increasing demand. Providing a plentiful, nutritious, and affordable food supply is critical- especially in these trying economic times. One in eight Americans turned to food banks in 2009.Fewer than 2 percent of Americans live and work on a farm. In many states, farmland is being converted for urban development at an increasing rate. The demand for food could simply not be met if farmers were forced to revert to 1950s production strategies. Click here (link no longer available) to learn more about the amazing efficiency of American farmers.The productivity of the farmers and ranchers that provide us with meat, milk and eggs is not the result of irresponsible or inhumane practices, but rather decades of hard work, scientific study, innovation in animal care, in depth examination of animal nutrition and thoughtful use of natural resources. Farmers’ and ranchers’ highest priority is to produce food in a manner that is responsible to the animals, the environment, their employees, and consumers.
- I appreciate that perspective, and the rest of the document, titled “Get the Facts About Food, Inc.“, will explain the Big Agriculture point of view on the propaganda in Food, Inc.
What to believe?
Ultimately, there is a middle ground. All factory farms aren’t evil enterprises. There has to be a way to produce large-scale production without the negative side effects. Let’s find and support the farmers who are trying to do this!
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