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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

January 30, 2004

Air Date: January 30, 2004



Factory Farms & the Politics of Food / Jeff Young, Michael Pollan

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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. (29:35)

Emerging Science Note/Global Warming Diet / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on new research that a warmer world might change the diet of songbirds. (01:20)

Grazing in the Grass / Guy Hand

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A small number of ranchers are rejecting the feedlot system and raising their cows on grass. Producer Guy Hand follows one cattleman as he tries to make a go of ranching the old fashioned way, selling direct to a new group of consumers. (13:00)


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HOST: Steve CurwoodGUEST: Michael PollanREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Guy HandNOTES: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. In the wake of the first recognized outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States, federal regulators and legislators are scrambling to beef up safety rules for the meat industry. But are they’re missing the point? Critics say mad cow is a symptom of a fundamental malady that haunts today’s massive factory farms.

POLLAN: When we talk about agriculture being unsustainable, 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 is at war finally with the way nature works, and that you cannot be at war with nature indefinitely. Nature always wins.

CURWOOD: Public health and the farm crisis this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Factory Farms & the Politics of Food

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.

Related links:
- Humane Society
- Farms.com on Country of Origin Labeling

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Emerging Science Note/Global Warming Diet

CURWOOD: Coming up, hear more from Michael Pollan about the differences between feedlot and grass-fed cattle as we head out on the range. First this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: If global warming continues as predicted, songbirds might have to change their diet. It’s already known that when plants are exposed to an increase in carbon dioxide, they in turn increase certain chemicals in the leaves, known as tannins and phenolics. Caterpillars that munch these leaves have a higher level of the chemicals in their bodies.

But scientists at the University of Rhode Island realized no one had taken this research one level up the food chain to look at how this might affect the birds that eat those insects. So the team got a hold of gypsy moth caterpillars from a test forest that was being sprayed with higher levels of carbon dioxide.

These caterpillars became food for a group of black-capped chickadees.

Another group of birds was fed caterpillars with normal, low levels of tannins and phenolics. Then the groups were given their choice of which type of caterpillars to eat.

Turns out, the birds clearly preferred caterpillars with lower levels of the chemicals.

Researchers say this indicates that birds in a warmer world might end up with an aversion to gypsy moths – which could then lead to an explosion of the moths, causing widespread defoliation. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Cynthia Graber.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth network, Living on Earth’s expanded Internet service;, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for coverage of energy and climate change; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues; and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

[MUSIC: Badly Drawn Boy “Delta (Little Boy Blues)” ABOUT A BOY SOUNDTRACK (BMG Artist Direct - 2002)]

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Grazing in the Grass

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The recent discovery of mad cow disease in Washington State has consumers nationwide worrying about the safety of American beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says there's little real risk.

But critics argue that the mad cow scare is just one of numerous problems that arise from an industry that forces farm animals to live increasingly unnatural and unhealthful lives. Some cattlemen agree. Producer Guy Hand visits an Idaho rancher who has abandoned the feedlot and factory-style beef production for the open range.


ELZINGA: Come on guys, get down there, come on guys.


HAND: On the Idaho-Montana border, where Lewis and Clark once walked, rancher Glenn Elzinga is weaning his calves.

ELZINGA: Sometimes I wonder if they know, you know, it's this time of year, and they just get that sinking feeling that this is the day, this is the day we must part ways.

HAND: Cows bellow in protest as Elzinga shuts a gate separating mothers from calves for the first time. Cowpoke-lean, his Stetson cocked over a bushy, Wild Bill mustache, Elzinga is all but apologetic as he ushers a few more calves through the gate to new pasture.

ELZINGA: Sometimes we call it Glenn and Caryl's Counseling Center for Wayward Cows.


HAND: If Elzinga and his wife Caryl were typical ranchers, their soft treatment would be short-lived. They'd send these calves to faraway feedlots where they'd eat an unfamiliar diet of corn and antibiotics, fattened up quickly and efficiently for slaughter. Instead, Elzinga's calves will spend their lives on the pastures where many of them were born.


ELZINGA: Really, I'm a grass farmer, because this grass is the foundation of my entire operation.


HAND: Elzinga and two of his five young daughters walk through green pastures. He used to send cattle to the feedlots, but was discouraged by the bleak economics of modern beef production. And he just didn't like the industrialization of something as ancient, as simple, as cowboys, cattle and grass.

Grass-fed cow.
(Photo: ©Guy Hand )

ELZINGA: I think that wherever you get farther detached from the original way things were – like cattle originally at grass, grass! You know, and fish swam in the ocean, you know, and now we're farming fish. The more and more we remove these animals from the original things that they were meant to eat, the more and more concerns we're going to see as we eat them.

HAND: Writer Michael Pollan agrees. In a scathing critique of the beef industry he wrote for the Sunday New York Times, he lamented the broken connection between cattle and grass.

POLLAN: There's a wonderful co-evolutionary relationship between cattle and grass. These are animals who have evolved to be able to digest grass, which is a marvelous trick that we don't have. We cannot digest grass at all.

HAND: Pollan calls it a solar-powered food supply.

POLLAN: The sunlight feeds the grass, and the grass feeds the ruminants, and along we come and we eat the ruminants. So it's an indirect way for us to get our food energy from the sun.

HAND: He says it's an ecologically elegant system, but one beef producers began to abandon in the 1950's.

POLLAN: The logic of economics or industry are very different than the logic of biology. If you want to fatten a steer on grass, it can take you two to three years. If you get him off of grass at six months, you can put him on corn – at that point a very hot ration of corn, and some other things -- then you can bring them to market by the time they're 14 months. That's an astonishing thing.

HAND: To speed up biology you need a controlled environment. That's where large, centralized feedlots come in. Cattle are fed not grass, but a fattening diet of grain, animal protein and other agricultural byproducts. For the consumer that means more beef at less cost. Still, Pollan says, the feedlot comes at a steep price.

POLLAN: The modern feedlot is an astonishing place. I mean it is like a medieval city in that you have this vast, motley population drawn from all over the place, living in very close quarters, with no sanitation. And the result of that kind of environment has always been disease. And disease is a constant threat on the feed lot. Diseases can spread like wildfire, and therefore you've got to use a lot of drugs and antibiotics to keep it under control.

HAND: While Pollan looks at the feedlot and sees sick cattle wallowing in their own feces, Gary Weber, animal scientist with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, sees something entirely different.

WEBER: It's not uncommon on a cool day in the summer in the morning to see cattle kicking up their heels, their tails up in the air, and hooves kicking around having fun with each other in those feedlot settings. And they have fresh food; water available at all times. They've got their buddies with them. It seems like a very pleasant place to be, looking in it from the outside.

HAND: Weber says the feedlot isn't the product of cold economics, but came from the extra care pioneers gave the steer they raised for their own families.

WEBER: They'd feed grain to that steer and fatten him up, as it were, and they learned that that beef was tastier, more tender, more heavily marbled for their own family's uses. And the word started to spread around and that lead to opportunities for people to raise these animals in more of a commercial way. And the reason being is that consumers' really like the taste, the juiciness, of grain-fed beef.

HAND: But writer Michael Pollan finds the feedlot diet a good deal less appetizing.

POLLAN: There's not just corn in there. We feed cattle on feedlots a lot of horrible things. We feed them brewery waste. We basically look at cows as repositories for all sorts of junk. And to think that what we feed animals, we're not feeding ourselves is really to kid ourselves. You often hear you are what you eat, but we are also what we eat eats, if you can follow that (laughing).

HAND: Mad cow disease travels up the food chain when cattle eat feed containing the brains and spinal tissue of other diseased cows and we, in turn, eat them. Feeding cattle to cattle was banned in 1997, but critics say enforcement is lax. In contrast, organically grown and grass-fed cattle avoid the mad cow risk simply because they are not fed processed animal byproducts.


HAND: But rancher Glenn Elzinga has other reasons for growing grass-fed beef.

Mellanie, Glenn, Abigail
(Photo: Guy Hand)

ELZINGA: It's a place to raise not only these cattle, but my family. And they're just my number one priority. We have fun. We eat together and spend a lot of time with each other. So really, that's why I'm here. It's for these kids.

HAND: Do you like it here?

MELANIE: Yeah, because there's a lot to do.

HAND: Do you like living here?

ABIGAIL: Yes, because it's pretty.

HAND: Do you like the winter?


HAND: Why do you like the winter?

ABIGAIL: Because you can slide down hills.

HAND: Seven-year-old Abigail smiles a big, slightly mischievous smile, then yanks a handful of grass and tosses it at her sister Melanie.


ELZINGA: Hey, don’t waste the grass guys! You're wasting this grass, cut it out!

HAND: But life for the Elzinga family isn't all pastoral bliss. Every cattleman in America confronts the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the beef processing business is controlled by four large packing companies. Those companies have tremendous influence over cattle prices and production methods. So, small ranchers, with profits falling and little bargaining power to wield, are finding it harder and harder to stay in business – feedlot or not.

ELZINGA: [Big sigh] I, you know, I believe that independently-operated small farms or small ranches are going to be a thing of the past over the next ten years. I think the only way that I'm going to maintain profitability at a small scale, say 100 to 150 pair of cows, is by trying to find my own market and eliminating the many steps between my production and the consumer.


HAND: Here, at the Boise farmer's market, Elzinga looks like he took a wrong turn at the corral. Frozen steak in hand, surrounded not by pasture but office buildings.


ELZINGA: Want to try some? Absolutely free. No obligation.


HAND: He had little luck finding customers among his rural neighbors back home, so every summer weekend he drives five hours through Idaho mountains to sell his beef to city folk.

ELZINGA: It's a long drive. Yesterday my car died in Fairfield on the way down here and I had to get out and push for a while.

HAND: But at least he's found people who appreciate the fruits of his labor.

WOMAN (IN MARKET): Wow. That is flavor!

ELZINGA: I haven't had one person at this market come back and say they didn't like my beef. And that's a really positive thing, that kind of keeps you going, that kind of puts a little gas on the fire, you know?

HAND: Elzinga finds the farmer's market refreshing for another reason.

ELZINGA: When you're selling cattle on the commercial market, it's a very negative sort of deal. Because you've got a buyer; he's picking out through your cattle, and he's saying there's something wrong with this one, this one’s got a bad eye, this one’s got a bad foot... you know, they're coming up with excuses not to buy your product.

Here, people come back because they like your product. And it makes you feel good. It's a positive thing instead of a negative thing. And I like to build a relationship, I like calling people on a first name, and I like it that they know me. And there's just a lot more meaning to that than shipping my cattle on a truck to a Nebraska feed lot to a guy I've never met in my life, you know?

ELZINGA (IN MARKET): What have you tried before?

WOMAN: I think I tried the London broil before and it was very, very, very delicious.

ELZINGA: Oh, good deal, that's great!


HAND: Elzinga's wife and business partner Caryl also likes the personal contact of the farmer's market but that close connection doesn't pay the bills. Their meat is comparable in price to premium corn fed beef but it can cost several dollars a pound more than supermarket beef. Caryl explains as she fixes dinner.

CARYL: You can't sell it at the commodity price. We simply can't compete with the way cattle are raised en mass in feedlots on cheap feed. Just can't do it.

HAND: Grass fed cattle are more costly to raise because it takes longer to bring them to slaughter weight. It's also harder to keep the quality of the meat consistent during the winter months when cattle are eating hay rather than fresh grass.

CARYL: I don't know if there's a big enough clientele out there who are interested in what we do to actually make a big enough market to make this a viable income for us.


HAND: Caryl stares out the kitchen window for a long moment.

CARYL: About six months ago we said, you know, either we're going to do this and go at it whole hog and do the whole effort that it’s going to take to market this. Or, we're going to have to rethink everything we're doing -- and maybe quit what we're doing altogether and do something different. I don't think we'd leave the ranch. The kids have already said “Do we have to leave and move to town?”

DAUGHTER: I found some candy!

CARYL: You found some candy? Where?

DAUGHTER: Behind my chair.

Glenn’s grass-fed herd.
(Photo: ©Guy Hand)


HAND: Raising five young daughters doesn't give Caryl and Glenn much time to dwell on the future. The kids are hungry now. So they herd them to the dinner table and set out piles of homegrown vegetables and a juicy grass-fed roast.

DAUGHTER: The corn’s ours, the tomatoes are ours, the cucumbers are ours, and the cauliflower is ours. And I love the corn!

HAND: There is a small but growing group of ranchers nationwide trying to make a living away from the feedlot, and the problems that arise from industrial agriculture. Critics have long called grass-fed and organic cattlemen naive, but the mad cow scare has quieted much of that criticism. As consumers search for safer beef, ranchers like the Elzinga’s see a chance to preserve not only a fading kind of agriculture, but themselves. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand

ELZINGA: Okay, let’s go, let’s pray. Dear Lord, thanks a lot for this food and I pray that you please bless us.

FAMILY: [SINGING] Evening has come. The corn is cooked. Thanks be to God, who gives us bread. Praise God for bread.

ELZINGA: Okay, dig in!

Related links:
- National Cattlemen's Beef Association
- Glenn Elzinga's grass-fed beef site

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[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet “Escalay (Waterwheel)” PIECES OF AFRICA (Elektra - 1992)]

CURWOOD: Thousands of years ago we humans most likely assumed our modern form in the grasslands of Africa and evolved our senses and spirit in the bush. Even today, as biologist E. O. Wilson is fond of pointing out, we prefer to build our houses in spots that our ancient ancestors would approve. We like to be up high overlooking swards of open grass or calm water. And it’s nice to have some animals grazing peacefully nearby as they will likely warn us of the approach of a predator or a war party.

These days, the affluent among us have to settle for lakefront homes and grazing horses, and gardens that imitate the bush. But if you come with me to Africa on May 1st, you can see the real thing.

On our safari we’ll go walking and driving in Kruger National Park where there will be plenty of wildebeests and antelopes to help us sense the big cats in the area, including lions, leopards and cheetah. We’ll tour the bush much as our ancestors did, though we’ll be protected by rangers armed with rifles rather than spears.

Then, we’ll head down to the wild coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean for a few days of horse-back riding, canoeing and hiking under the care of the AmaMpondo tribe. The AmaMpondo are conducting these Eco tours to sustain their way of life and share it with outsiders, rather than seeking employment in the mining operations that have targeted this pristine area.

Find out how you can win a trip for two or guarantee a spot on this safari with me by going to our website, loe.org. That’s loe.org, for an adventure in the land of our origins.

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CURWOOD: And for this week - that's Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Aaron Copland “Hoe Down” COPLAND ORCHESTRAL WORKS (Nimbus Records - 1990)]

CURWOOD: Next week: For the first time the federal government is investing millions of research dollars in schools that teach alternative medicine. One of the goals is to jumpstart a long needed dialogue between practitioners of Eastern and Western healing techniques. They might start with a Chinese diagnosis of hypertension.

WAYNE: Some patients would be diagnosed as having liver fire, and these patients may look like they have red face, red eyes, headaches. Some of the patients may have liver fire with kidney and deficiency. Others may have something called phlegm and dampness.

CURWOOD: It’s the new face of alternative medicine research - next time, on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime, and get the stories behind the news, by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with “Wings Over the Prairie.”

[CD: Lang Elliot & Ted Mack “Wings Over the Prairie” WINGS OVER THE PRAIRIE (NatureSound Studios - 1995)]


CURWOOD: That’s the name Lang Elliot and Ted Mack gave this recording they made of birds in, around and above a migratory watering hole near Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org.

Our staff includes Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Christopher Bolick and Nal Tero.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm - organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Anninberg Foundation (SP?).

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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