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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Factory Farms & the Politics of Food

Air Date: Week of January 30, 2004

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Last month's mad cow incident sparked a stampede of new rules and bills in the capital. Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us what regulators are doing, and why critics say it should have been done long ago.
Part 1: Living on Earth talks with New York Times writer Michael Pollan about how we raise livestock and why it might be imperative that we change some of those practices.
Part 2: We return with Michael Pollan to talk about the overproduction of corn in this country, and how that has caused a host of problems for us from obesity to the spread of new diseases.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state has started a stampede in Washington D.C., as regulators and lawmakers scramble to restore public confidence in the nation’s food supply.

New rules and bills would limit the kind of cattle feeding and processing that led to the disastrous outbreak of mad cow in Britain in the mid-90s. But public health advocates say the safety agencies should have acted long ago.

Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to talk about the new rules. Jeff, the British mad cow incident taught us that feeding cows parts of other cows is a big part of the problem. Will the new rules end that practice now in the U.S.?

YOUNG: For the most part, yes. Rules dating to 1997 aimed to end this kind of cow cannibalism, but there were still big loopholes that allowed for things like cow blood to be sprayed on feed for calves and poultry litter to be included in cattle feed.

Now, because chicken feed can contain parts of cows, poultry litter can have cow parts in either spilled feed or the droppings. New rules from the Food and Drug Administration ban all of that. So, no more blood, no more chicken litter, no more table scraps from restaurants in cattle feed.

CURWOOD: So, those are the new rules on what the cows eat. What about the cows we eat? How will that change?

Downed calves in stockyard pen.
(Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

YOUNG: The biggest change is a ban on what are called “downer” animals. These are cattle that can’t move or stand up on their own. These downers are considered the most likely to have mad cow. And indeed, the infected animal in Washington was not able to stand.

CURWOOD: So, we won’t have to worry about downed animals in our food supply anymore?

YOUNG: Well, maybe, except that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is already running into opposition over this rule. When she testified before the House agriculture committee, Texas Democrat Charles Stenholm and others attacked the ban as unscientific and too costly.

Now, these lawmakers are very concerned about costs – the loss of export sales to some 50 countries now – and they don’t want to impose new costs on the industry.

Given these early complaints from powerful committee members, food safety advocates worry that the rule on downers might not stand. A similar ban was approved two years ago but it was wiped out before it took effect.

CURWOOD: Well, wait, you’re saying that this ban could have been in place more than a year before this mad cow episode?

YOUNG: That’s right. Both the House and Senate approved a downer animal ban as part of the 2002 farm bill. But the provision was stripped out in conference committee. Supporters say this time the ban needs to be more than a rule, which can easily be changed. This is Wayne Pacelle. He’s with the Humane Society of the U.S.

PACELLE: The beef industry and the dairy industry have exerted undue pressure on policy-makers, and that they thwarted the will of the majority of congress. We don’t want that same scenario to play out with USDA and its administrative rules. These animals that are downed and diseased, often times, should not be finding their way onto American’s dinner tables.

YOUNG: So several new bills would make that ban law. And there’s also new legislation that would revive a law for labels telling customers where their beef comes from.

CURWOOD: Ok, now this is beginning to sound familiar. Wasn’t this part also of the Farm Bill?

YOUNG: Indeed it was. It’s called “country of origin” labeling. The idea is, if a cow spent its life in the U.S., its meat gets a U.S. label. And it also applies to sheep and some produce. This passed Congress, it got the president’s signature – it’s law.

But industry lobbied for, and won, a two-year delay in the labeling program. Some ranchers I spoke to say those labels would have helped them in the recent mad cow event, because the cow in question originated in Canada. And suddenly, consumers wanted to know, hey, what country produced this beef that I’m buying?

CURWOOD: Now, what about testing? What are we doing to catch diseased animals before they get to market?

YOUNG: USDA has surveillance testing for mad cow. It’s targeted at the most suspect groups of animals. Last year, they tested about 20 thousand cattle. This year they plan to double that. But that’s out of an estimated 35 million cattle slaughtered.

So food safety groups, and some members of Congress, say we need much more testing. One bill calls for testing of nearly every cow brought to slaughter. That bill’s co-sponsored by Washington Democrat, Patty Murray.

MURRAY: In my home state of Washington, not a single cow was tested in the first seven months of 2003. Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and Colorado together produced 70 percent of U.S. beef, but only account for 11 percent of the testing. This has got to change.

YOUNG: But, here again, there are concerns about the cost of the testing. Safety advocates counter that consumers are willing to take on extra cost for some extra peace of mind.

CURWOOD: Jeff, it seems that this mad cow episode is just one in a string of food safety events, and some worry that the next might be this avian flu outbreak now in Asia. Will these new rules or bills aimed at mad cow also address any of these other problems?

YOUNG: Well, specific illnesses will of course require specific responses. But the critics of the food safety program – and there are many of them – they very much see a pattern here.

And while these new rules primarily target mad cow, the proponents say there would be some spillover benefit for other illnesses. Downed animals, for example. They’re downed in their own waste, and thus more likely to introduce bacteria into foods. So banning downed animals could help there, as well.

The country of origin labels would not apply to poultry, so it would not better inform consumers who are concerned about something like the avian flu being imported from abroad. But the general idea with that is that the labels would empower consumers with a little more information -- at least when it comes to meat and produce.

CURWOOD Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thank you, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Observers of the business of farming say that diseases like mad cow and the avian flu virus are symptoms of the stresses that modern agriculture is putting on animals, humans and the ecosystem.

Joining me today to talk about the foibles of factory farms is Michael Pollan. Michael teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s also the author of “The Botany of Desire” and has written extensively about gardening and the production of illegal drugs.

But his most recent journalistic obsession is food. More to the point, the food industry, which he’s been covering for the past few years for the New York Times Magazine. I call it an obsession because for a story on the American beef industry, he actually purchased a steer – for 598 dollars – and then wrote about its life from calf to slaughter.

Michael, your most recent article was about mad cow disease. And in it you wrote, and I quote you here: “You can’t help feeling that the convoluted new food chain that industrial agriculture has devised for the animals we eat, and thus for us, is, to be unscientific for a moment, disgusting.”

Michael, talk me through the lifecycle of the typical U.S. raised steer.

POLLAN: Well, it starts out in the old bucolic way, with a pastoral period of about six months when the newborn calf is with its mother, grazing on prairie grass – as it has been doing for eons. Nursing, eating a little bit of grass, in no need of any medication or drugs.

And then at six months, the animals are typically rounded up and they’re brought into paddocks. And they’re weaned, they’re separated from their mothers. And then they are put on a new diet – gradually stepping up every week – of corn.

The reason that they gradually have to step it up is that cattle have a lot of trouble digesting corn. They weren’t designed for that. They’re really designed to digest grass. Which is their, you know, their great gift to an ecosystem, in that they can digest this thing that we can’t – because they have a rumen.

And a rumen is essentially a fermentation tank. You know, they have a four-chambered stomach, but the important one is this rumen. And in that rumen a resident population of microorganisms goes to work breaking down cellulose, and turning that grass into high-quality protein and energy for the animal.

CURWOOD: OK, what does it do to corn?

POLLAN: Well, it goes a little bit kaflooey as soon as you put in corn. If you put in too much too fast, the animal is apt to get very sick and suffer from bloat and acidosis; these are the common diseases of the feedlot. And the reason is that the corn acidifies the stomach. It cuts down on, you know, rumination.

We always hear about this process, you know, the chewing of the cud. Well, that depends on a lot of roughage in the diet. And when the animal chews its cud, one of the things it’s doing – besides adding saliva to the mix, which adjusts the pH in the rumen – one of the things it does is it allows the animal to release gas. It belches. Cows are great belchers.

Well, with corn, there’s a little problem. This layer of viscous foam forms over the stuff in the rumen, and the gas – since they’re no longer ruminating, they don’t have a cud to spit up – the gas isn’t released.

And the gas – it’s fermentation remember, and gas increases and increases – and the rumen basically expands like a balloon. And unless something is done to relieve that pressure, the animal will suffocate itself, because the rumen will press against the heart and lungs until it can’t breathe.

CURWOOD: Ugh, this sounds really difficult. It must make the cows really, really sick.

POLLAN: It can kill them. So what you do is, you shove a hose down their esophagus and let the gas escape. This is one of the things corn can do to animals, to ruminants. It also acidifies their stomach lining, which leads to ulcers, essentially breaks in the stomach lining through which bacteria can escape into the bloodstream. And they lodge in the liver and they create lesions there.

So, you know, this is what happens when you essentially defy what evolution has dictated for the cow. But cows cannot tolerate this diet without high doses of antibiotics. And from the moment, that six-month point where that animal goes onto a corn diet, he begins getting a daily dose of rumencin, which is a very powerful agent. It kills bacteria, and basically helps with acidosis and bloat. It also buffers the stomach. And they could not survive without it, I heard from one vet after another.

But you see why as soon as you get them off grass you’re on this treadmill, where you must start giving drugs, and monitoring them with veterinary care so that they don’t get sick. Now, this begs the question, why do this? Why take them off grass if they’re so healthy and happy on grass? And the reason is very simply that time is money, and an animal fattened on grass will take a lot longer to reach slaughter weight, will take two years at least.

Whereas if you put them on this dense, high-energy diet of cheap corn – and there’s other stuff in it, as we’re learning, there are protein supplements and bits of other animals and all sorts of goodies – a if you put them on this high-energy diet, you can get them to slaughter weight in 14 months. And that has really been the obsession of the industry for several years is to bring down that amount of time it takes to get to slaughter weight.

So they have to pull out all the stops, and that’s also why they give them hormones, to speed up their growth, and get them to that slaughter point. I mean, the battle cry of the industry is 11 hundred pounds in 11 months. Which would be quite extraordinary, but probably isn’t far away.

CURWOOD: The feedlot system does a lot to cows, that you’ve talked about. What does it do to humans?

POLLAN: Well, one of the things feedlots do to humans is potentially make them sick. A lot of the food poisoning problems that we’ve had with meat are a result of all that manure that the animals are spending their days caked with, finding its way into the meat. And sometimes that manure has very lethal bugs, such as E. coli. 0157H7. This finds its way into the meat, and that’s how we get sick. And children in particular are at enormous risk for this pathogen; it can kill them.

CURWOOD: My guest is Michael Pollan, author of “The Botany of Desire,” and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and we’re talking about some of the problems associated with how we raise beef in much of the developed world.

We’ll be back in a moment to discuss the economics of agriculture, and figure out why food has remained one of our cheapest commodities. I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: David Newman “Opening Travel Music” ICE AGE SOUNDTRACK (Varese Sarabande - 2002) ]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. My guest is Michael Pollan, author of “The Botany of Desire” and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

And Michael, we’ve been talking about modern farming practices and why many of them are bad for cattle, but you also write our agricultural system is bad for humans, too. Specifically, you say it can make us fat. And you’ve really put the blame on the current obesity epidemic on the overproduction of corn.

In fact, you wrote something that I think is really astonishing, and that is that kids born today are the first generation who are likely to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents because of what they eat. Why?

POLLAN: Well, it’s a, you know, it’s one of those simple answers to a complicated question. But if you look at all the causes we hear for the obesity crisis -- you know, our lifestyle; how sedentary we are; super-sized portions at fast food outlets; our sweet tooth --you find behind all that is simply that there are too many cheap calories out there. And if you follow the calories back to the farm -- which is, of course, where almost all calories come from except the ones we get from, you know, wild or hunted foods -- you find that most of them are corn, and to a lesser extent, soybeans.

CURWOOD: OK, so, how did we get into this thing?

POLLAN: Well, in the case of corn, there’s a long history behind it. I mean it begins with the fact that this is an incredibly productive plant – there is no more efficient way to produce energy, from the sun and soil and water, than to put in a corn plant. It’s an astonishing plant.

But just as important, at this point, is agricultural policy. We have a set of policies administered by the USDA that encourages the overproduction of corn by paying subsidies to farmers, by doing nothing to control the overproduction. We used to have a granary into which we put surplus corn, and we used to pay farmers not to grow corn, and we used to loan them money instead of giving them subsidies. And by loaning them money they could keep their corn off the market, and could therefor keep the price up.

But beginning during the Nixon administration we changed those policies, and the reason we did it was there was a secret deal made to sell a lot of grain. The Russians were having a lot of problems with their agriculture, and they had a bad harvest -- so they placed an order for a huge amount of American grain. And when the news of that broke, the price of commodity grain went through the roof.

And the price of meat, in turn -- I mean everything depends on grain in our food system, in the industrial food system -- so the price of meat soared, and chicken soared, eggs, butter, milk. And people were in the streets protesting. There were consumer boycotts, there was horse meat in the butcher shops.

And this was a moment of great political peril for Richard Nixon, and so he dispatched his new agriculture secretary, Earl Rusty Butts. And everybody remembers Earl Butts as the secretary of agriculture who lost his job after telling a dirty joke on a campaign plane in 1976. But long before that happened to him, he basically rejiggered American agriculture, and set it on this new course. Got rid of the granary, began the process of moving towards direct payments to farmers -- rather than price-support loans -- and urged farmers to plant fence row to fence row, just to pump up production as high as he could in order to force down food prices.

And it worked. The price of food has not been a political problem for the government for a long time. And, you know, governments don’t like -- many governments have fallen when the price of food got too high. So we have, since then, the opposite problem.

It’s a little too simple to say food is cheap -- because it isn’t, in a way -- but calories are cheap. And specifically the calories -- the high energy calories, the fats and the sugars which we add to all our processed food -- those are incredibly cheap. And the reason is that corn production has soared. We’re up to about ten billion bushels of corn every year, and that in turn has driven down the price to the farmer, and it allows, say, as one example, Coca-Cola and Pepsi to switch from sugar to corn sweetener, which they did in the late seventies.

CURWOOD: Let me just be sure I understand what you’re saying here. We grow too much food, in America, and so we’re getting fat because we’re growing too much food, or too many calories?

POLLAN: Yeah, we’re growing too many calories, and we’re selling them too cheaply. You know, the problem of food -- not just in America, but in the world – is overproduction right now, it’s not underproduction.

There are more people who are overweight than malnourished at this point; about a billion who are overweight worldwide, and 800 million who are malnourished. The problem with those people, too, is about access to food, not the amount of food. There’s food rotting in the granaries in India as we speak. You need money to buy food.

The justification for so many agricultural technologies, such as genetic engineering now, is we need to feed the world. Well, you know, that’s not quite true. I mean, we have too much food right now, and we will for the foreseeable future.

CURWOOD: If I sit down at a buffet table there’s way too much food for me to eat, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to get fat. Why does all this food production mean that we’re fat?

POLLAN: Well, you have to go back to the history of a marketing gimmick called “super-sizing,” which we’ve all heard about.

It was always thought in the food business that we had what’s called a “fixed stomach” -- that we could only eat so much. And it was a huge, sort of fundamental problem for agriculture, because you want your business to grow a good ten percent a year to get anybody’s attention on Wall Street. Yet the population was only growing about one percent a year. So you had a surefire recipe for crashing rates of profit.

The only way to bail yourself out is to persuade people to eat more, or get them to pay more for the same cheap food. And industry pursues both strategies. Super-sizing, which is something that was invented by a marketing man in the 1960s in Texas, became the strategy to expand the fixed stomach. This fella discovered that – he then went on to work for McDonald’s, by the way –

CURWOOD: Of course --

POLLAN: -- Yeah, it was a smart hire on the part of Ray Crock, although Ray Crock took a while to be persuaded of the wisdom of super-sizing. But – David Wallerstein’s his name – this guy’s job was to handle the concessions, which are the profit item for all movie theatres. And at this chain he was trying to goose up sales, and he was having the hardest time.

He just found that no matter what deals he offered on soda and popcorn – he would have two-for-one deals, matinee specials – people would not eat two buckets of popcorn or two sodas. And he figured out that they didn’t want to feel like pigs. So he came up with this other idea, which is, get them to spend a few pennies more for a bigger size -- rather than getting two -- so thus was born that giant bucket of popcorn and a 32- or 64-ounce soda.

The raw materials are so cheap – again, because of these cheap calories coming off the farm, particularly the high-fructose corn syrup and the oil – that it cost you very little to go from an eight-ounce soda, say, to a 16-ounce soda, to now a 32-ounce soda. But rather than lower the price on your eight-ounce soda -- and hope people will order two, which they won’t – you just make a bigger soda.

I was at McDonald’s the other day and I could see how it worked, the super-sizing. The 16-ounce is now a small, which is pretty astonishing, because when I was a kid there was that svelte -- you remember that svelte eight-ounce Coke bottle, it was a very sexy kind of shape – eight-ounces. And there was a six-ounce before that.

Now small at McDonald’s is 16-ounces. It cost a dollar and 25 cents at the one I was at. And large, which is 32-ounces -- twice as much -- is only 30 cents more. So, you know, you’re a shnook to get the small. And so you get the large.

Now going back to your question about the buffet table: well, just because I’ve got this big soda in front of me, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be any thirstier. Well, it turns out that human appetite is surprisingly elastic. And they have done studies, and when you put more food in front of people they will eat up to 30 percent more.

And that has to do probably with our genetic inheritance. We have what’s called a “thrifty gene.” Since we evolved, you know, in times of feast and famine, we were programmed basically to store fat whenever it was around, and burn it during the famine. The problem now is the famine never comes in this country. So we’re storing fat against an eventuality that is retreating.

CURWOOD: If you could do a little math for us here -- we’re growing too much food. In terms of calories, how much do we overproduce?

POLLAN: Just since the 1970s, since the change in agricultural policy I’m talking about, the farmers have increased their output by 500 calories. They went from 3,300 to 3,800. And we have managed to pack away 200 of those calories, which is pretty heroic, I think, on our part. The other 300, they’re ending up in ethenol, we’re burning them in our cars, or we’re dumping them overseas.

If you eat 200 more calories a day every day for a year, you’re going to put on a lot of weight. That’s significant. Unless you exercise more, of course, but there’s no evidence that the amount of time we spend exercising has gone up at all since the 1970s.

CURWOOD: You wrote at one point in your articles that cows really are part of the fossil fuel economy. What did you mean by that?

POLLAN: Well, when you feed cows corn and grow them in feedlots, you’re participating in the fossil fuel economy. Because the way you grow all that corn to get these kind of high outputs – 200 bushels an acre in many parts of Iowa – is by putting lots of fossil fuel fertilizer down on your land.

This fertilizer, which has really been the key to high corn yields all through the 20th century, is made from natural gas. It can be made from oil, as well, or any fossil fuel. So that it takes an awful lot of fossil fuel to grow the corn that you need to grow the meat.

There are other ways in which you’re using petroleum as well. Of course, you’re moving everything around a lot, these animals travel a great distance in their lives. You’ve got the diesel fuel for the tractors. You’ve got the pesticides used on the corn, which is also a petroleum product. And the net result is -- I’ve seen estimates ranging from half a gallon of fossil fuel per bushel of corn, up to a gallon. So it’s another one of these costs of the cheap food economy. That, in fact, we’re using up the stores of fossil fuel in the earth to do it.

About a fifth of all the fossil fuel we import goes to agriculture. People don’t realize how closely the food system is tied to the energy system. But you can follow what’s going on in that food lot back to the Persian Gulf. I tried to do that in my piece and show that one of the things we’re defending when we fight for the oil supplies is cheap meat.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, Michael, you enjoy eating meat yourself, right?

POLLAN: I do, I do indeed.

CURWOOD: And in fact at one point you went into the cattle business. Can you tell me about that?

POLLAN: Yeah, I was a rancher very briefly, and on a very small scale. When I was doing my research for “Power Steer,” my article on the beef industry for the Times, I wanted to follow one animal to kind of dramatize the whole story. Because it’s a very complicated story, and very hard to get a handle on.

And after I found these ranchers in South Dakota who agreed to let me watch how the animal went through its life cycle, they suggested to me, ‘You know, if you really want to understand what ranching’s all about, you should buy this animal from us.’ I think it was said half in jest, but I realized it would be a very good idea.

So I bought the animal, and it was mine. And that gave me certain advantages in telling the story. Not least of them was that when I went to visit the feedlot I could talk to them as a client, and not just a journalist.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh. What was his name?

POLLAN: You know, I didn’t name him. I was concerned that I would create too much of a sentimental reaction in the reader, who would then be deeply offended when I ate this thing. So I called him by his number, which was 534.

CURWOOD: So I take it that you sent number (cough) 534 to his final reward. And how did you do? You paid 598 bucks for him. What did it cost you to feed and take care of him?

POLLAN: I was paying a couple dollars a day for his room and board at the feedlot --which isn’t a bad deal, considering it was an all-you-can-eat situation, and he was eating quite a bit. And he was getting his drugs and he was getting his hormones.

In the end, however, I got my check from the ranchers. And I’d given them 598 dollars – they were paying the feedlot bills themselves, as part of their package with the other 97 cattle – and they sent me back a check for 598 dollars. It was a complete wash. They had actually lost money on that particular group of cows – the market was poor. Mine had graded well, so they felt I should come out whole. But, on average, they lost a few dollars on every single animal.

CURWOOD: So, what’s been the average return on animals coming out of the feedlot over the past couple of decades, do you think?

POLLAN: It comes to about three dollars a head over the last 20 years -- which, considering that these are thousand-dollar animals, is a pathetically small rate of return.

CURWOOD: So if you feed them all this corn, you give them antibiotics, you give them hormones, you transport them – all to make three dollars?

POLLAN: Yeah, you know, the ranchers are in the same trap that almost all American farmers are in. Which is, they’ve been sold a bill of goods on a very high input agriculture, that if you buy all the newfangled chemicals and drugs and technologies, you’re going to make more money.

And what’s happened, really, is that the profits of American agriculture have migrated to the people selling you the expensive inputs. It’s the seed merchants and the pesticide merchants in farming, and it’s the drug makers in cattle. So the ranchers have really, I think, fallen into a trap.

And some are discovering – this is certainly true in cattle – that a lower input way to go ends up being more profitable, even if your yield goes down. See, we’ve kind of tricked American farmers into looking at yield as the be-all and end-all. How many bushels an acre of corn can you produce? How many head of cattle can you get off your land?

These yields go way up, but the margins go way down. In the case of cattle, if you had fewer animals and left them on grass, for some people that might end up being a much more profitable formula.

CURWOOD: These days, we see mad cow disease emerging -- first overseas, then Canada, now in this country. Some say that this is an alarm bell that’s warning us of the stress we’re putting on our ecosystem, the stresses of having this factory farm system – that the economics of our system mean that things like mad cow are just going to happen. What do you think of that analysis?

POLLAN: You know, when we talk about agriculture being “unsustainable” – if we take that word seriously, and don’t just throw it around as a bit of environmental jargon – it means that the system cannot sustain itself. Cannot go on indefinitely. That it will break down.

Mad cow may be one of those signs of breakdown. That our zealous effort to industrialize nature – to reduce it to the molecules, the cheapest calories – is at war finally with the way nature works. And that you cannot be at war with nature indefinitely. Nature always wins.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan is author of “The Botany of Desire.” Michael, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

POLLAN: My pleasure Steve, good to be with you.




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