Sunday, February 19, 2012

More on Earlier Pollan Post: The Feedlot

In wanting to understand more fully how the industrial food chain works, Pollan purchases an eight-month-old calf from Blair Ranch in South Dakota. At that time, the calf is transported to Poky Feeders Feedlot in Kansas where Pollan pays $1.60 a day for room, board and meds. Here are some of Pollan's observations:
  1. By far the biggest portion of the American corn commodity (about 60 percent) goes to feeding livestock.
  2. Since WWII, America’s food animals have undergone a “revolution in lifestyle.” Animals have moved from widely-dispersed farms to densely populated animal cities. These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was coined to denote them: CAFO- Concentrated Animal Feeding Organization.
  3. Farmers then lose the ability to compete with CAFOs, so animals leave the farms and the farms are left for corn.
  4. It costs a farmer more to grow feed corn than it costs a CAFO to buy it.
  5. As CAFOs grew, corn production increased and found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat much of it (like cattle). Farmed salmon are now being bred to tolerate grain as well. Where else might the excess biomass of corn go?
  6. The economic logic of CAFOs is hard to argue against: meat is made, its cheap and abundant and most American families can eat it whenever they want.
  7. But what about environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens?
  8. A closed ecological loop results with fertility problems dealt with by chemical fertilizers and pollution problems on the feedlot not really addressed.
  9. Another biological absurdity is that animals are made to adapt in ways “animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection (Pollan is not a Christian, but his concept is what Christians would translate ‘divine design’) to live on grass must be adapted by us- a considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters- to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.... The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution” (p. 68).
  10. 4 out of every 5 beef cattle are slaughtered by one of four giant meatpacking companies (Tyson subsidiary IBP, Cargill subsidiary Excel, Swift & Company, and National), “These corporations have concluded that it takes so much land (and therefore capital) to produce a calf ready for the feedlot- ten acres per head at a minimum- that they’re better off leaving the ranching (and the risk) to the ranchers” (p. 69).
  11. Pollan's steer had spent his first 6 months in lush pastures alongside his mother, eating native grasses (western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass).
  12. Cows, sheep, bison and other ruminants have “evolved the special ability to convert grass- which single-stomached creatures like us can’t digest- into high-quality protein. They can do this because they possess what is surely the most highly evolved digestive organ in nature; the rumen. About the size of a medicine ball, the organ is essentially a twenty-gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria dines on grass.... Truly this is an excellent system for all concerned: for the grasses, for the bacteria, for he animals, and for us, the animals’ eaters. While it is true that overgrazing can do ecological harm to a grassland, in recent years ranchers have adopted rotational grazing patterns that more closely mimic the patterns of the bison, a ruminant that sustainably grazed these same grasses for thousands of years before the cow displaced it. In fact, a growing number of ecologists now believe the rangelands are healthier with cattle on them, provided they’re moved frequently. Today the most serious environmental harm associated with the cattle industry takes place on the feedlot” (p. 70).
  13. How do you get a steer from 80 to 1100 lbs. in fourteen months?  Answer: a tremendous amount of corn, protein, fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs, “Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth” (p. 71). In the early part of the 20th century, a cow was 4-5 years-old at slaughter. In the 50s, they were 2-3 years-old and today they are 14-16 months. “Efficiency” is the key word here.
  14. The industrial logic is rational and even irresistible- “we have been successful at making beef everyday fare for millions of people for whom it once represented a luxury” (p. 71).
  15. After 6 months in lush pastures, Pollan's steer was weaned from his mother (so she can be quickly inseminated again), spent 2 months in a “backgrounding” pen preparing for life on the feedlot. He is confined to a pen, taught to eat from a trough and gradually accustomed to a new and unnatural diet- the rumen encounters corn.
  16. At about 8 months, he is taken to the CAFO, “a city built upon commodity corn.”
  17. Here the feed mill prepares 3 meals a day for 37,000 animals. A million lbs. of feed passes through the mill each day. Every hour of every day, a tractor trailer pulls up to the loading dock to deliver another 50 tons of corn. The corn is released into the mill. On the other side of the building, silo-shaped trucks pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements. In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen beside pallets stacked with 50 lb. sacks of antibiotics- Rumensin and Tylosin. Along with alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks three time a day to fill Poky’s 8.5 miles of trough.
  18. Before being put on this highly concentrated diet, the steer will be treated for a few days with fresh long-stemmed hay since his rumen has to be restarted after the long transport. Over the next several weeks, he will gradually step up to a daily ration of 32 lbs. of feed, 3/4 of which is corn.
  19. Is corn natural to cows?  “We’ve come to think of ‘corn-fed’ as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you’re referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. It’s chief advantage is that cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef” (p. 75).
  20. “Corn has become so deeply ingrained in the whole system of producing beef in America that whenever I (Michael Pollan) raised any questions about it among ranchers and feedlot operators or animal scientists, people looked at me as if I’d just arrived from another planet. (Or perhaps from Argentina, where excellent steaks are produced on nothing but grass).... The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market” (p. 75). 

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