I knew I wanted my Beyond Organic, Part 2 post to focus on meat production since that is what we do here at Wyebrook. My plan was to start with some background information on conventional meat production followed by organic rules and practices and concluding with Wyebrook’s methods. However, as I began writing the conventional background, I realized it deserved its own post and that such a post needed to come before Beyond Organic, Part 2. So stay tuned!
You may or may not be aware that most animal products (meat, eggs, &
dairy) here in America comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, better known as CAFOs or feed lots. Stay with me here. I know a lot of people automatically tune out when they hear “CAFO” or “feedlots” because they anticipate a lecture on animal welfare. That’s not where I’m going with this. While there certainly are concerns about how animals are treated and how CAFOs affect the environment, that’s not what I want to focus on today. My goal is to steer clear of the more emotionally charged and polarizing topics.
Prior to the 1950s, most animals were raised on small(ish), diversified farms where a single farm was home to several different animal and crop species. In the 1950s, people began applying the Ford assembly line concept to agriculture. Diversified farms were replaced with monocultures. Farms began to specialize in a single species, be it corn or cows or whatever. If you are reading this thinking “That sounds reasonable” considered the old adage about not putting all your eggs in on basket. Remember the Irish potato famine? Need I say more?
The problem with focusing on animals is that they are unpredictable and are pretty labor intensive. As farmers began to specialize, they naturally began to look for ways to make their work easier while simultaneously increasing their profits. The first logical step was to contain the animals in a manageable space. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Fences protect the animals just as much as they make life easier on the farmer. But this became a slippery slope from fenced fields to barns to CAFOs. This video from Chipotle pretty much sums it all up (and, no, I’m not advocating for Chipotle!):
CAFOs, as the name implies, take a large number of animals, almost always a single species, and confines them in a small space. This unfortunately, leaves the animals susceptible to illness. Think pink eye or lice in an elementary school. When you have a variety of species, parasites are more likely to get confused. If you take a child, a dog, a snake, and an orchid and put them in a room together, they aren’t going to get each other sick. Just trust me on this for now. I’ll write more on the benefits of diversified farms later.
These animals are, for all intents and purposes, an investment and the company – be it Tyson or Smithfield or whomever – has an obvious interest in keeping them healthy. Easier said than done when they are kept in such close quarters.
The problem is that in a large-scale operation like a CAFO an illness could easily take out 10-25% of the herd or flock before it is caught and stopped. That’s a big risk and these companies want to do what they can to protect their investment from such an outbreak. If I knew there was a chance I could lose 10-25% of my assets, I’d want to do whatever I could to keep that from happening. The solution? Antibiotics.
There aren’t special animal antibiotics. Cows and pigs and chickens receive the same drugs you or I would if we were sick. Penicillin. Cipro. Tetracycline. In fact, 70% (80% by some estimates) of antibiotics sold here in America are for animals, not people. These medications aren’t reserved for sick animals. They are regularly given to all animals. Think of it as a bacterial preemptive strike.
Unfortunately, antibiotics were never intended for routine use. As a result, new “superbugs” are starting to take hold. To oversimplify, the antibiotics effectively kill most of the harmful bacteria except for the few freak mutations that happen to be immune to the drug. These strains multiply and what was once a tiny fraction of the bacterial population becomes the dominant strain. Doctors are seeing it in E.Coli, MRSA, and pneumonia strains. It’s scary stuff. Perhaps my medically-inclined sister would be willing to do an in-depth guest post on the dangers of abusing antibiotics??
Whew. Now you see why this needed its own post and rather than being the intro section to Beyond Organic, Part 2. And this is just scratching the surface. I could (and someday may) do posts dedicated to all the different varieties of CAFOs, their policies and practices, the health risks associated with CAFO products. But all of that is for another day. The good news is there are alternatives to CAFO products! More on that tomorrow.
For further reading: