By Becky Weed
Our food and agriculture system is caught in a whirl of contradiction. Farmers feed the world but are dependent upon subsidies that can harm communities and ecosystems. Ranchers strive to give young calves a healthy life on the range, only to sell them to confinement feedlots where they fatten on corn, degrading their digestion and our diets, trapped in their own waste. The eaters that support this system are also complicit. But sooner rather than later, we need to move beyond a world of blame toward a world of solutions.
An Ethiopian agricultural official landed at my lunch table a few years ago in the midst of an organic livestock conference in Minnesota sponsored by IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. He puzzled aloud, “I’m really confused. For decades we’ve been hearing from developed nations, “You have to learn to intensify your agriculture,” but here, at this conference, these people are telling us that our extensive systems, our ‘natural’ animals, might be valuable. I don’t know where to turn.”
“Join the club,” I thought to myself, for I too was reeling from the ironies of the livestock agenda.
“Big surprise,” I jeered inside, for the guideposts set for this Ethiopian man by a collage of aid agencies, agricultural academics, domestic political realities, and the simple force of hunger are not fundamentally different from our own American history of contradictory guideposts over the last century. In revealing his own exasperation at mixed messages and missions, this Ethiopian man had touched a nerve in me I hadn’t realized was so raw.
Only in retrospect do I articulate the sense of schizophrenia in farming that has been brewing. The irony is so commonplace that we are almost inured to its jolts: we feed the world, but our subsidies damage everyone’s ability to feed themselves; we protect open space, but we destroy biodiversity; we represent lauded agrarian roots, though we epitomize the pathologies of industrialization; we call ourselves “the first environmentalists,” while our job is to exploit nature’s bounty; our intimacy with animals is legendary, but our mechanistic exploitation of animals seems boundless; we literally cultivate beauty as we obliterate wildness.
We invoke these dichotomies so regularly, and with such expedience, that our natural compulsions toward coherence seem worn out and cast aside: the U.S. Congress sings praises to the family farmer, while repeatedly voting in farm bills that destroy the same; humane and human-scale small farms fill our children’s books and school field trips while the residue of corporate-scale production fills their school lunch programs; we hammer out hardball trade agreements “to promote agriculture,” but we cast a blind eye to the overseas farmer and consumers forever altered by such “free trade”; we strive to raise children who are proud to “feed the world,” but our own struggles with bankruptcy, diminishing prestige, and/or dependence on nonfarm income cast a different shadow, and drive many of our youth off the land.
The dilemmas implicit in these polar perceptions and habits are so troubling, and so intractable, that we seem stuck like iron filings over a magnet, both repelled by, and caught up in, one another’s fields. For observers of agriculture, that’s manageable. Landing somewhere in the range between critic and cheerleader, observers can reconcile the polar pulls by taking solace and enlightenment in their own conscious and intentional eating habits and professional endeavors. But farmers are caught up in a different force field, compelled to land somewhere along the spectrum between complicity and victim status, often uncertain of just what position we hold. Farmers, ranchers, and factory workers involved in livestock agriculture illustrate the quandaries most starkly, for our relationships to live creatures leave little room for ambiguity about consequences.
..is intimately tied to a cattle feedlot system that treats his calves in ways that would be anathema on his own ranch.
A midwestern hog farmer, leveraged in debt to hog confinement facilities once built in an attempt to add value to his corn and soybeans when prices were low, is now confined himself by high grain prices and an animal factory that bears no resemblance to his childhood memory of pigs. A laborer in a southeastern chicken “farm,” likely an immigrant accepting wages that most Americans would spurn for such work, performs unspeakable acts on caged birds--as he struggles to make a decent home for his own children. Even the western rancher, at least once remove from the dreariness of ultraintensive livestock agriculture and keeper of the independent cowboy archetype, is intimately tied to a cattle feedlot system that treats his calves in ways that would be anathema on his own ranch. Is he complicit because he “uses” an industrial ag infrastructure to maintain his glorious lifestyle while others do the dirty work? Or is he victim because he busts his ass and takes real risks to make it in a commodity universe that has prices so far from parity with nineteenth-century goods that we barely even joke about the discrepancies anymore?
Even those of us who are working in different versions of agriculture in small pockets all over the world, tied more fully to our animals’ full life cycle and to our human customers, harbor little illusion that we are free from the factory fray. Although we may take pride and solace in our local land and animal stewardship, we daily face the harsh reality of our larger enclosure. Whether it’s the glass ceiling of prices over a commodity atmosphere, the seemingly irreconcilable walls between niche-market values and the desirable goal of good food for everyone, or the floor of landscape degradation that extends way beneath even the most precious farm gate--we are all boxed in.
Will the condemnations alone move us out of our binds in modern food consumption? Our animal factories may not find their biggest threat from distressed citizens who worry about the size of chickens’ cages and the stench of corn manure deep in cattle feedlots. Sincere and legitimate as those animal welfare concerns may be, they have not shown the power necessary to bring our industrialized animal houses down, at least not yet. Upton Sinclair started this campaign generations ago, but the Farm Bureau triumphantly published a survey of Americans as recently as 1999 showing that three fourths of consumers think farmers do a good job taking care of farm animals, and the statistics on mainstream meat and dairy consumption appear to corroborate their case. Is it satisfaction, or resignation? Like Jefferson’s characterization of what slavery does to the master, it may be time to consider the haunting possibility that the animal factory itself degrades the administrators as much as the inmates, mixed metaphors and all.
Are there signs that our own massive machine could collapse under its own weight? Forget for a moment the possibilities of uncompetitive markets, the revolving doors between industry and regulators, real and corrupt though they may be in some instances. It’s enough to consider the more profound degradation we are instituting via the earth itself: both the confinement apparatus and the well-intentioned cropping systems that sustain it are degrading the earth’s natural infrastructure as surely as slavery degrades the psyche. Consider pollinators, or hydrologic cycling, or predator-prey relationships among everything from bugs to megafauna, or carbon cycling in soils and the atmosphere, or fisheries’ reliance on oxygenated runoff. We have been messing with all of it.
Back at the Minnesota conference, covering everything from ultraintensive Danish chickens, to midsize hog and cattle models of the midwestern United States, to wandering, semiwild beasts in the poorest provinces of India, these organic farmers and researchers from around the world were like minded in their dedication to chemical-free farming, but all over the map in terms of scale and intensity. Both the Ethiopian man and I, a Montana sheep rancher, could accept that there is no recipe for the “correct” size for success, for we are accustomed to the notion that nature also runs a spectrum in size and intensity, from anthills to snow leopard habitat. But is it out of line to yearn for some criteria for identifying, designing, and managing an appropriate scale for agricultural production, and the necessarily coupled systems of processing and distribution? Who is setting the guideposts? We could simply accept our fate as one of gaming a long string of trade-offs, or we could seek a more strategic plan.
Economies of scale have busied the calculators of industrial food strategy for at least a century, primarily in the name of growing more food, a mission that seems so basic and admirable we do not question it. The arithmetic of scaling up to achieve commodity efficiency is indeed compelling, and in recent decades, my midcareer peers have joined this calculating vortex while kneeling at the altar of the “free market.” I look back now and see that three quarters of the Harvard class of 2007 went to work in the “financial services” industry. That fraction has ramped up steadily from about 20 percent in 1970.
Large percentages of graduates from other Ivy League institutions similarly gravitated to the financial sector, and land grant graduates who populated the midlevel leadership of agribusiness did their bidding. To be sure, only a small portion of the financial sector leadership had anything to do with food systems--but that is part of the point; we have allowed agriculture to be governed by a financial sector that has either selected the scale and mode of biological systems with the tools of an Economics 101 lecture, or has been clueless altogether. Is it any wonder we face disruptions?
The midlevel land grant support force, though far less inept in the world of domestic livestock and crops, and admirably sensitive to the merciless statistics of population growth versus food supply projections, seems to boast a similar dose of denial about how the earth works. These days, automobile industry analysts are cackling with incredulity at American manufacturers who in the 1980s projected millions of car sales to China, while at the same time ramping up production of Hummers at home. Did they assume that petroleum could remain cheap after a few decades of that? It’s hard not to ask if today’s agricultural theorists are not making the same mistake in their own fields of corn, hogs, cows, and ethanol, even with the benefit of automotive hindsight.
Perhaps it is time to apply the same zeal to our selection of scale that we once applied to our worship of its expansion. Examples of such efforts, all requiring adjustments of scale, are abundant, diverse, and underway:
- The grass-fed meat movement
- Distribution systems that use renewable fuels, modern information tools and creative partnerships among producers to empower rather than degrade local production systems
- Cropping systems that enhance beneficial predators and pollinators rather than degrading them
- Grower networks that empower decentralized production and overcome limitations of small size
- Husbandry techniques that acknowledge and make use of natural animal behaviors rather than suppressing them
No doubt readers could add more, and with increasing frequency I encounter 20- and 30-something visitors who show up without degrees in financial services, but rather with a roll-up-the-sleeve passion to seek new models, new scales. The imperative now is to stop viewing these experiments and these young people as fringe romanticizations of bygone eras or yuppie pretensions, and to subject them instead to both the support and rigorous evaluation that reform movements and reformers merit.
The myriad consequences of such “experiments” are inspiring. They include: more humane working conditions for people and animals; more beneficial distributions of fertilizers and wastes; carbon sequestration via grassland restoration; reduced dependence on petroleum-based tillage and transport; efficiencies yielded by integrated cropping and livestock systems; reduced vulnerability to industrial-size food safety fiascoes; increased animal health resilience in response to diversity and decentralization; and restoration of human and wildlife communities.
The full potential of such consequences is constrained by competition with a commodity system, and a belief system in the seats of power that still perceives that centralized commodity system to be robust. Having run the experiment on scaling up for many decades now, we have discovered limits to its design. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we need not spend all our time decrying the ugliness of our errors (many were well intentioned), but we can use those discoveries to qualitatively redesign our schemes for agriculture. Doubters need only examine the list of scaling-up “errors” that generated the innovations listed above: inhumane working conditions for people and animals; inane distribution of resources that turns fertilizer into hazardous waste; carbon emission via excess tillage and grassland destruction; extreme and consequential dependence on petroleum-based tillage and transport; inefficiencies yielded by decoupled livestock and monocropping systems; proven vulnerability to industrial-size food safety fiascoes and animal health crises; and fraying of human and wildlife communities.
If we ran our economic models through a filter that understands how the earth works, rather than merely the prestigious but provincial arithmetic of economies of scale, we might find the means to invest more wisely in the innovations already underway. Pollination, predation, nitrogen fixation, wetland filtration, carbon cycling, and so on. These are the criteria missing from the lectures delivered to, and delivered by, the founders and funders of the factories.
Only by reconciling these and other natural processes with new adaptive systems for feeding ourselves will we update our designs, and only then will we reconcile the schizophrenic self-image that haunts farmers today. It is natural and legitimate for concerned citizens outside agriculture to point their ethical queries at the animal factories, but as farmers, we must take the lead in pointing the ethical query back at citizens, and at ourselves. As long as we collectively defend a regime that dominates itself with subsidized corn and soybeans to feed the factory (and now the gas tank), we are complicit. If the binds of finance and personal aging are too tight to liberate us from this circle of wagons (and for many people they truly are), then, at a minimum, let’s at least encourage our children to throw off the traces.
Becky Weed is the co-owner of certified organic Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company, a former member of the Montana Board of Livestock and a co-founder of the Wild Farm Alliance.
This article appeared in chapter form in Dan Imhoff’s The CAFO Reader, The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.