Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bad article on feedlots, with a twist

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A few days back, I came across an online article in the tweet-stream written by a self-described vegetarian, about CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations).  This might not sound very strange, as vegetarians often write about CAFO's.  But the catch was this: the article was going to be in favor of them.  This, I had to read.
After reading it, I'm sorry I spent so much of my time on it.

Basically, it boils down to this:  This article is nothing more than a fluff piece for CAFO's.  In fact, it is so fluffy, I'm willing to say that I seriously doubt the author's authenticity.  The piece is riddled with misrepresentations, flawed logic, and the typical arguments couched in a "wow! as a VEGETARIAN I never knew that!" style of writing.

First off, I'll admit that I am confused about the author, because his "favorite" t-shirt was a bust image of a woman's t-shirt (on a woman) that read, "have you hugged a vegetarian today?"  Also, though the blog author is, "Ryan Andrews", the introduction was obviously written by somebody else, and that, coupled with the objectifying shot of the woman's headless torso make for a discombobulated opening.  But, on to the actual reporting.

The claims of this article are extraordinarily polished - by which I mean that they have been worked and worked to avoid, as much as possible, actually false claims, while trying really hard to address specific concerns voiced by people who actually care about animals.

For example:  "You see, very few people in the nutrition world are ever allowed to visit feedlots.  In fact, some of my favorite authors have written entire books about feedlots without ever being granted permission to see one in person."

I'm sure this is technically true.  I mean, what logical person owning private property would willingly let in people who are looking to destroy their industry?  However, quick search engine searches, or searches on YouTube, easily offer video footage of animal cruelty within actual feedlots.  There is a difference between being granted permission and getting inside. Yet, the author's claim here is meant to give his article a credibility that other "favorite authors" (who?) shouldn't have, without actually calling anybody out.

Another example:  "So if Steve’s (the feedlot owner) is a “family farm,” what’s a “factory farm”?  Well, the term “factory farm” isn’t actually used in the agricultural community.  So, in essence, it’s slang that was coined by skeptics of the cattle industry."

First, note the two "so's" sandwiching a "well" - creating that shucky-darn down-homey feel, trying to hide an industry mantra, that there is no real factory farm, and that farming is still a family enterprise at its heart, with the hope that people will automatically equate "family" with local, good, simple, humble.

But there is something more insidious in this claim.  I, for one, have heard many in the agriculture community use the term "factory farm".  Organic and small farmers serving multiple products largely to their own communities often refer to their subsidized, promoted, competition as factories.  And of course, if you eat, you are a member of the ag. community.  And don't even get me started on what constitutes a "farm" (multiple products) vs. a "ranch" (one product).  It's bad enough to perpetuate the illusion that there is an ag. industry that doesn't include its customers, but trying to separate organic and multi-cropping farms from the agriculture community is downright wrong.

I could really spend an entire post pointing out these little, weasley wordings.  But there are some actual claims made by this PR piece that don't stand up to scrutiny, even after all the polishing, and it's those I'd like to really address.

I'll start with the CAFO definition.  The author claims that the EPA says a CAFO are places that, "congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland."  But, this is the definition of an "AFO", not the definition of a CAFO.  According to the EPA, a CAFO is defined by its pollution contribution, a criterion which Magnum (the feedlot in the article) meets.  Pretty interesting omission, that one.

 Another one has to do with the author's "surprise" at the diets of feedlot cows:  "Wait, wait.  What about all those reports of sick cows being stuffed with corn?  Well, folks, at Magnum anyway, there’s no such thing as an “all grain” cattle diet.  In fact, the diet of the cattle at Magnum never exceeds 50% corn.  And often, it’s much, much less."

This statistical claim is so out of context that it is rendered beyond useless, it is actually misleading.  The simple, unanswered question is:  What amount of corn in a cow's diet is bad for it?  The author doesn't know, or doesn't say; but by showing shock at the grass in the cows' diets (what does he think all those alfalfa fields are for?), he misleads the reader into believing that he does know, and that the percentages used by Magnum are good for cows.

Michael Pollan claims that 15-30% of feedlot cows show abcessed livers, which more reasonably leads one to believe that the diet is not good for cows.  Also, fat marbling in muscle is a fairly unnatural phenomenon in nature, so one can reasonably assume that whatever is being fed to feedlot cows is doing unnatural things to their bodies.

Next:  "Growth-promoting hormones are used in feedlot cattle as it (sic) increases efficiency. These are naturally occurring hormones that are regularly metabolized by the body.  Most cattle don’t get antibiotics. And if they do, they need it. Further, they won’t be sent to slaughter until 21 days after antibiotic administration, since it takes that long for the antibiotic to clear the system."

Okay, I'm sick to death of this argument.  Do you know what else is naturally occurring?  Puffer fish poison.  Cyanides.  Hell, petroleum is naturally occurring.  And when a body metabolizes it, what happens to it?  Does it completely disappear, doing nothing?  Another bias of omission.  Also, the last sentence is at least misleading, and probably false.  The folks at Magnum have to give a waiting period for cows on antibiotics, per USDA regulations.  We don't really know if it takes 21 days to clear the system, but we definitely do know that this isn't the reason the folks at Magnum wait 21 days. 

And another:  "According to Magnum, organic feed doesn’t seem to increase meat quality or safety.  Research doesn’t really support the idea either.  But, organic feed does allow consumers another option (i.e. organic meat vs. non-organic meat).  And organic farming practices may have some benefits for the planet." 

Holy cow!  Really??!!!  It's hard to address this one, because it's a whopper.  "Quality" is subjective, and many folks who raise grass-fed beef get the smelly end of that stick, because USDA quality criteria include fat where it shouldn't be.  The "another option" claim is a way to give lip-service to an industry the author doesn't necessarily want to offend (other cattle ranchers).  That last sentence just... it just... well, I'm sure you know how that last sentence makes me feel. 

And that was just the bump-set for this spike:  "Sure, some folks think grass-fed, free-range is better.  But, as any good PN reader can attest, it’s a heckuva lot more expensive.  And, at the end of the day, Magnum is competing for the protein food dollar. Mainstream America is currently buying conventionally fed meat from cattle, so, feedlots keep producing it.

"It’s also important to know that if we continue to eat 200+ pounds of meat per person per year in the U.S., grass-fed isn’t really an option.  There’s not enough land."

Of course, the first real reference to consumers is derogatory.  The hapless, helpless little beef industry buffeted by the market and insatiable appetites must, simply must provide what is demanded.  As an economics-minded person, I'm always sickened by the hide-behind-the-demand defense, because it pretends that profits don't exist, that wealth doesn't exist.  Also, the economist in me immediately asks, "why is grass-fed more expensive?" and the answer is apparent:  The big CAFO ag. industry is heavily subsidized, in its feed, in its water deliveries, in its pollution, in its energy consumption, even.  So, we are paying more for meat, we are just paying for it socially, through taxes and social costs associated with its production.

And I've already blogged about how untrue the land claim is regarding grass-fed vs. feedlot cows. 

And on to animal welfare:  "...Magnum wants the cattle to be clean and comfortable.

"I know, I know, I can see my animal welfare comrades shaking their heads – - but think about it. From a profit standpoint, if animals aren’t comfortable, they aren’t going to eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t grow. If they don’t grow, they won’t be much use to the dude wanting to buy a big steak."

I have thought about it, and the consequentialist ethic here regarding cleanliness is wrong.  Magnum doesn't want cattle to be clean.  They want carcasses to be clean.  Magnum doesn't want animals to be comfortable, they want them to be fat.  To be fat, they need to eat, not be comfortable.  Comfort does not always equal eating well, and discomfort does not always equal eating poorly.  One does not have to follow the other.

Plus, "comrades?"  Can you say, "subliminal message?"  No Commie inference there, I'm sure.

And on "waste" at Magnum:  "Magnum recently started composting manure and mortalities (i.e. cattle that don’t make it). It’s gotten more expensive to send deceased cattle to processing plants that manufacture pet foods, so this was the next best option.

"Plus it’s more sustainable.  And the cattle don’t end up standing around in piles of their own feces.  Whew!"

Did I miss something?  Is dog food made out of cow poop?  A sneaky little semantic sleight-of-hand there, moving from all its waste to just its "mortalities".  The last sentence there makes one think that Magnum has folks just standing around behind cows, waiting for them to poop.  But wait!  What was the author's first thought upon arrival?  "“Oh, god, the smell.”"  Now, go to your local county fair, and smell a cow.  Don't smell just the barn they've been standing in, but really smell a cow.  They smell like cows, not cow poop!  Cows, like other animals, only smell bad when something is wrong.  He should have trusted his nose, it always knows.

I could spend an entire post on his "conclusions."  But I won't.  His conclusions, based on such faulty information, cannot lead anywhere good.  Of course, he never touches the notion of animals having worth in and of themselves, or our responsibility toward allowing them to live like they should.  Nor does he address the fact that pollutants in a CAFO are actually additive in a grass-fed environment, and that farmers can reap greater output with fewer inputs, over the long run, with grass-fed beef.  Nor does he address the health concerns of the people working in industries that support this CAFO (like the folks who have to deal with the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the fields that feed these cows). 

Please, food folks, stop passing this article along as some kind of new and improved way of looking at CAFO's.  It's bad reporting, it's bad writing... it's, it's just bad.


Tovar said...

Hey Josh - I thought you might be interested in the author's follow-up comments, responding to feedback he got from both sides of the issue:

What do you think?

Josh said...

He's nuts if people are going to believe that he isn't just a shill for factory farms (that's right, I said it!).

I love how he frames the opinions he received, leaving folks like us completely out - people who want to make ethical meat choices.

For example: "Finally, the truest indicator of what we believe in and care about is best exemplified in how we live – and I live a 100% vegan lifestyle. Remember that."

Okay, philosophically, removing what you do at work from "how we live" is impossible, (draw a Venn diagram to see what I mean), and so it's unethical and distracting to pretend otherwise.

the guy took terms and ideas off a pro-CAFO brochure and touched 'em up from a "vegetarian" perspective.

What do you think of my rebuttals to his points in the first article?

Tovar said...

What initially intrigued me about Andrews’s article was the bare-bones bizarre juxtaposition of perspectives: a vegan saying nice things about a CAFO.

As I read it, I was—-like you—-struck by the tone. And by the confusing associations. For example, given his stated concern for animal welfare, when he likened the feedlot to a “Holiday Inn,” it was hard to tell if he was just talking about the economic model (“Profit increases as occupancy increases”) or also about the level of comfort one enjoys at a Holiday Inn where one is, presumably, staying voluntarily.

I was a vegan for a long time, and I have never heard one say that cattle are “harvested.” Nor have I ever heard a vegan say that he can’t “imagine the living conditions would be substantially better for the cattle” on a pasture-fed ranch/farm than in a CAFO. I’m not sure what to make of that. Is he sincere? (If so, why does he—in the follow-up comments—suggest that animals are probably “extremely fearful” being kept on a feedlot?)

In his conclusions, he includes the phrase “if my experience at Magnum is representative of other cattle farms,” and then goes on, apparently assuming that it IS representative. If we give Andrews the benefit doubt concerning his sincerity, we’re left with the question: Is his experience representative? Or is he fooling himself (or being fooled)?

Personally, I don’t know. All I know is what I’ve read. If I had visited a wide range of CAFOs, I’d be better prepared to say. As you know, I have no fondness for the confinement of animals. So there might not be any CAFO on the planet that I’d like. But, in relative terms, there’s a world of difference between the hell-holes you see in the YouTube videos you mentioned, and the kind of scene Andrews describes. (Just as there’s a world of difference between the nastiest, cruelest hunting videos on the internet, and the kind of hunting you and I practice.)

In his follow-up comments, he makes it clear that he does NOT know if his experience was representative. He encourages people to visit farms and see where their food comes from. He encourages vegans and meat-eaters to listen to each other and live in ways that minimize harm. All good things. The original article would, I think, have been better and more comprehensible if it had included them.

Two questions on your reference to the definition of a CAFO. First, do you know if there’s an ag community meaning of the term that differs from the EPA’s meaning? Second, on the EPA page to which you linked, it looks like an AFO becomes a CAFO if it either (1) has 1,000+ head of cattle, or (2) is found to be a significant contributor of pollutants. So a 1,000+ head AFO would be defined as a CAFO even if there was no pollutant contribution found, right?

Josh said...

Tovar, it's the examples like the Holiday Inn one that lead me to believe that this guy isn't just a vegan with an interesting angle, but is actually a shill for the industry. I think he is a bought-out person. If he were just referring to the economics of the situation, he could have chosen a million other analogies. Or, just stayed away from analogies, altogether, and been frank about the cost-benefit analysis under the current situation.

So I'm not buying his feigned ignorance; I think it's a ploy.

As for your CAFO definition question: CAFO's are defined because of their potential for polluting waterways. AFO's of over certain numbers of animals (typically 1,000) are automatically assumed to meet that concern, unless they at least A) do not have a waterway, and B) grow their feed on-site (grass-fed). AFO's of under the number are considered CAFO's if they have a significant potential to impair waterways or water quality. Then, they must be confined (hence, the "C").

The fact that their pollutants are not even pollutants, but actually nutrients, in a grass-fed system, says a lot about the concept.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Nice dismantling, Josh. Just got back from my trip so I haven't read the refutation Tovar linked to, but I'll be sure to check it out.

My first instinct wasn't "shill," but "sucker." I've heard other cases of the CAFO folks inviting bloggers out for little happy tours and getting similar puff pieces.

Very unfortunate, on the whole. Just because the farm wasn't beset with evil salivating demon farmers doesn't mean CAFOs are good for animals, the environment or people.

Tovar said...

The follow-up comments seemed to consist mainly of Andrews trying to tell folks--both those who loved his article and those who hated it--that he's not half as keen on feedlots (or meat in general) as the article made him sound.

A very strange package overall.

Josh said...

Cazadora, my first instinct was "sucker", too. But when I read into it farther (and perhaps I'm too far into it to see straight anymore), I noticed phrases and phraseology that do not appeal to nor reflect a typical vegan writer. Holiday Inn was one; so was the constant faux-rural voice. "Well, folks, so..." is not a typical vegan voice. (I actually imagined the voice narration from the little informational movie in Jurassic Park, "it's a DInosawer!" narrating this article).

It is a weird one.

Andy said...

Josh, I share your opinion of the Andrews article, and think your suspicions are worth airing, but the fact is that there are all kinds of vegans who talk all kinds of ways.

This guy may have chosen veganism primarily for nutrition reasons--he is a nutritionist and former bodybuilder. His exposure to animal-rights-focused vegan culture may be minimal (lots of vegans don't know many other vegans). Maybe his friends are all omnivore jocks, and his social environment keeps his attitudes mainstream. Lots of vegans have few veg friends.

This is not to excuse his utter lack of critical thought in the article. And maybe he really is bought and sold. But the folksy way of speaking for example is not so strange and may well be his upbringing talking.

Josh said...

Thanks, Andy. It's true, not all vegans are alike - I'll grant that I may have been a bit over-the-top in lumping, there. But that faux-folksy farming voice is so common among big-ag advocates, as a way to tap into the subliminal images of many consumers. When I noticed that style in this context, it fit uncomfortably close.

Tovar said...

You make good points, Andy.

The folksy tone of the article didn't bother me that much. It's not how I would write, but I see it as mainly a matter of style.

And it's true: people become vegans (or vegetarians) for a variety of reasons.

But Andrews's follow-up comments indicate an alignment with animal welfare, if not animal rights: "The animal advocates and vegans, a group I more strongly identify with, has taken my article extremely negatively. To them, let me clarify a few points: 1) It’s thanks to animal advocates and vegans that any type of progression has been made in the animal welfare movement. It’s because of you that feedlots are starting to make some of the improvements I discussed in the article. It’s because of you that people are starting to think about these issues. It’s because of you that I am who I am today..."

Puzzling, yes?

Erik Marcus said...

Hey Josh,

Well-argued piece. I wanted to send you an email but it doesn't seem to be present on your profile. Anyway, I loved your article and I blogged my thoughts on it over at


Tovar said...

You very well may be right about the folksy tone, Josh. Though I read it as mere style, it certainly could be more than that.

Ginny Messina said...

Thanks for this excellent analysis, Josh, and also your comment on my blog. Regarding the "folksy" tone, what I noticed was that overall tone, style and quality of the writing were significantly different between the feedlot piece and Ryan's follow-up comments posted on June 28th. Assuming that the "Letter from Ryan Andrews" is an example of how he actually writes--well, it makes the feedlot article sound more than ever like a carefully-crafted PR piece. That doesn't mean that I believe he intended it to be that--I don't know what I believe about why he wrote this.