© 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.
2 days ago