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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beefy Corn

Time for another recap of some of the fascinating (and disturbing) information passed on by author Michael Pollan in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Last time, I told you of the incredible role that corn plays in our American lives--in our food, our health, etc. Pollan goes on to describe how most of the commodity corn grown in the US is used.

60% of the corn grown in the US goes to feeding livestock--most of it going to feed the 100 million beef cattle raised in this country.  Unfortunately, these animals aren't built for eating corn.  They're grass eaters, but corn is cheaper and allows the animals to fatten up in a fraction of the time that grass does it.

These corn-fed cattle live (and I use that word very loosely) on what are called CAFOs--Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  (Appetizing, huh?)  It used to be that cattle were raised on a farm that was growing all sorts of crops and the animals were fed the waste from the crops.  And the crops benefited from the waste from the animals.  It was a logical and natural circle.  With these feeding "cities," however, all sorts of problems arise--the fertility of the land is ruined (because growing one crop over and over will kill the nutritional content of the soil), terrible pollution problems occur at the feedlot (which usually go without a remedy) among many others.

What Pollan does is actually buys a calf (named Steer 534) that is on a ranch in South Dakota and follows it to a CAFO in Kansas.  These newly born calves start on grass because, biologically, they have to.  But soon they are weaned from the grass and their mother's milk to ready them for the feedlot.  In days past, it took a steer maybe 4-5 years to be ready for slaughter.  Today, thanks to corn and protein and fat supplements and drugs, a steer grows from 80 to 1100 pounds in about fourteen months.  Just not natural.

While the natural circle that I talked about above in the farms of the not-so-distant past is a good thing, the CAFOs present a vicious circle.  Pollan likens these feedlots to medieval cities--where overcrowding and lack of sanitation is a recipe for disease.  The reason the residents of these modern cities don't succumb to disease is the antibiotic.  Another tasty ingredient so often mass-produced beef.

Pollan describes how the feed is mixed together at the CAFO where 534 lives.
Every hour of every day a tractor trailer pulls up to the loading dock to deliver another fifty tons of corn....tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks into which they 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 fifty-pound sacks of antibiotics....Along with alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be automatically blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks that three times a day fan out from here to keep (their) eight and a half miles of troughs filled.

This just isn't good.  The animals are almost all sick to some degree.  So they have to be given the anitbiotics.  (Most of the antibiotics sold in the US today end up in feed for these animals.)  Then there's the huge pools of manure that just sit on the outskirts of the pens.  The runoff from these waste pools can't be used for crops--they'd kill them because of what's in them.  They end up poisoning waterways and water life.

There's a lot of other problems that I could write about:

  • The danger of strains of microbes (E. coli, for example) that can thrive in the meat and pose a threat to the eater. 
  • How to make that less of a problem, they use radiation to sterilize the meat and the manure that inevitably gets into the meat--along with all the nasty stuff that it contains.  
  • How 1/5 of "America's petroleum consumption goes to producing and transporting our food." 
Bottom line is that how most beef is raised in this country just doesn't make sense.

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