What's Left to Eat?

Livestock: Old MacDonald Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Picture an old red barn. Pigs and chickens romp nearby, while cows graze in green fields. That storybook image delights us. But it belies both the astonishing productivity and the hard-to-stomach conditions of today's large, industrial-style factory farms.

Farmers raising animals in sustainable ways use labels to alert consumers to their methods. These three terms are common. What do they tell you?

This tells you that the meat was raised without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, or antibiotics. The animals were not genetically engineered, nor did they eat food from genetically engineered plants. No irradiation was used in processing the meat.

This tells you that the meat came from an animal raised in a pasture. It grazed on grass instead being fed grain. Meat from grass-fed animals has fewer of the fats that harm human health than does meat from grain-fed animals.

This tells you that the animals were allowed to roam in the outdoors instead of living in a crowded pen or cage. Free-range animals are grass-fed, and can graze at will rather than just consume a controlled diet.


You can't wait. Your friends are having a cookout on Saturday, and it'll be great to relax after a long, test-filled week. Even now, your mouth waters at the thought of that first bite. Your teeth will glide through the perfectly toasted bun, then grab a mouthful of smoky, juicy—chemicals?! Wait…what's going on?


Picnic with hamburgers. Source: Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Source: Agricultural Research Service, USDA


What's going on is a revolution in the world of meat production. Worldwide, humans today produce five times as much meat as we did in 1950. As of July 2004, the U.S. alone was home to more than 100 million cattle, 60 million hogs, and 8 billion chickens.

Old MacDonald couldn't possibly look after all those animals. Instead, modern farm animals frequently live on supersize factory (industrial-style) farms. The shift has meant economic efficiency and higher profits for farmers—and cheaper meat for consumers. Yet this new approach to raising livestock also creates environmental problems and health risks. Indeed, factory farms would barely be profitable if they had to shoulder the true costs of handling the pollution they create.


Today's vast animal factories differ starkly from the gentle farmscapes of our toys and imaginations. For starters, a single farm may raise tens of thousands of animals. Factory farmers generally specialize in a single kind of animal. And there's no red barn anywhere in sight.


Holstein dairy cows. Source: Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Holstein dairy cows crowded together eating hay.
Source: Agricultural Research Service, USDA


Factory-farmed cattle usually live in giant feedlots—fenced spaces where cattle are fattened up in preparation for slaughter. Some gain as much as 4 pounds per day! Crowded feedlots provide scant opportunities for roaming and grazing. Instead of grass, their natural diet, the animals are fed corn, soybeans and other grains.

Still, cattle are far luckier than chickens or hogs, whose "home" is generally a large building known as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Its metal or concrete floors make it easier to remove waste. Few CAFO dwellers ever see the sun.


Hog farm. Source: USDA
Hog farm in North Carolina.
Source: USDA


CAFO pens or stalls severely restrict animals' movement, which causes big problems. Crowded and frustrated, hogs clash frequently and chew on one another's tails. But factory farmers have found a simple way to prevent tail-biting: Cut them off. This procedure, called tail docking, is done without anesthetic or medication to numb the pain.

Chickens need their space too. Birds kept in tight quarters tend to peck one another to death, so some chicken farmers debeak their birds. Doing so involves slicing off the beak with a hot blade—but, again, no anesthetic.

video_iconJourney into The Meatrix for an animated look at animal life and what that means for human health in the world of factory farming.
Source: Free Range Graphics and Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE)

Life in such crowded conditions is obviously no picnic for the animals. It also imperils their health, as well as ours. Diseases spread faster in concentrated populations, and studies have found that nearly 90 percent of the animals at a typical factory farm carry infectious diseases. Some of these are treated; others aren't.


To battle disease, factory farmers give their animals larger and larger amounts of antibiotics. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports that healthy farm animals consume "25 million pounds of antibiotics and related drugs." Find frequently-asked questions (and answers) along with actions you can take at UCS.

Megadoses of chemicals are also used to speed animal growth. In 1950, chickens took 12 weeks to reach four pounds. Not anymore. Selective breeding, high-energy feed, and growth-promoting supplements now spur chickens to reach the same weight in only six weeks.

The same is true for cattle. In just over a year, the animals grow from 80 to 1,200 pounds. One cattle producer recalls that his grandfather's animals were slaughtered at age four or five. Today's cattle, however, are ready for the slaughterhouse in just 14 to 16 months. This accelerated growth results from large doses of corn, protein supplements, growth hormones, and antibiotics.

Massive use of antibiotics in animal production can affect humans in two major ways. First of all, the drugs can quicken the evolution of drug resistant bacteria that may then infect humans with untreatable diseases. All those antibiotics and other drugs, moreover, accumulate in an animal's body. So do whatever growth hormones the creature ingested. When the animal eventually becomes meat, this chemical cocktail enters the body of whomever eats it. The effect of eating all these chemicals is not known.


The U.S. meat industry produces about 1.4 billion tons of animal waste each year. That's 130 times the nation's volume of human waste. A farm with 10,000 hogs produces as much waste as a city of 25,000 people.

In the early days of agriculture, such waste, called manure, was an asset. Spread on fields, it served as an organic fertilizer. Animal farms, however, have no crops to fertilize. So all that waste goes to, well, waste. Farmers store it in open pits called lagoons. A single lagoon can cover several acres.

Waste lagoon. Source: USDA
Waste lagoon at a hog farm in North Carolina.
Source: USDA

The stored manure often seeps into the soil, sometimes winding up in nearby streams and rivers. The waste may carry Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, and other bacteria that make humans sick. Arsenic, also present in the waste, can contaminate drinking water. In addition, animal waste is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, excess amounts of which can disrupt aquatic life.

That's not all. Fumes from waste lagoons can pollute the air. Farm workers and people in nearby communities appear more likely than others to contract respiratory problems.


Raising animals is a fairly inefficient way to produce calories. Creating a single calorie of beef, for instance, a cow or steer must eat seven calories of grain. That 7:1 relationship is called the caloric ratio. Pork has a caloric ratio of 4:1. For chicken, it's 2:1.

Growing all that grain requires a lot of fossil fuels. Besides powering farm equipment, petroleum is an ingredient in most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Producing a calorie of feedlot beef requires 35 calories of fossil fuel. A calorie of pork takes 68 fuel calories. Those fuel needs add up. Raising one beef steer consumes an estimated 300 gallons of oil. Growing a bush of corn, in contrast, takes 1.2 gallons of oil.

Then there's water. Depending on her output, a dairy cow needs 13 to 50 gallons a day. In comparison, people in Gambia, Haiti, and Cambodia and other struggling countries must get by with fewer than 3 gallons a day.

Dairy cattle. Source: USDA
Dairy cattle dine the old-fashioned way—complete with, yes, a red barn.
Source: USDA


Humans aren't likely to give up meat anytime soon. But we can find better ways to produce meat and dairy products. Sustainable agriculture practices enable farmers to keep their animals in humane conditions, care for the environment, and use agricultural methods that are safe for the public's health.

Some sustainable farmers, for example, has resumed the age-old practice of allowing cattle to graze. Instead of consuming corn grown with petroleum-based fertilizers,
these animals chomp grass—their natural diet. This practice doesn't just benefit the cattle. It turns out that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef, which are an essential part of a healthy human diet. Pasturing cattle, moreover, spares farmers the high costs of feed grain.

The Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest sites can help you find and support sustainable farmers near you.


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