By Dr. Mercola
"Food" is a 30-minute documentary that investigates how demand for more and cheaper food has dramatically altered the entire food chain. Today, food production revolves around efficiency—the ability to produce more for less. The ramifications of this mindset are wide-ranging and far-reaching...
As KPBS’ Joanne Faryon reports, “the food chain no longer looks like it used to.” Fish no longer eat other fish, and cattle eat very little grass, which is their natural food source. Instead, cattle eat corn, chickens eat corn and fish, and fish eat cows and poultry... Similarly, fresh produce like fruits and vegetables are primarily sold to foreign markets.
California oranges, for example, are exported to far flung places like Japan, while Americans eat oranges from Australia—presumably because Americans prefer the deeper orange color of Australian oranges, and the fact that they’re easier to peel. As a result, the carbon footprint of most foods sold in your local grocery store is massive, having made its way thousands of miles from where it was grown.
The Beef About American Cattle Farming
While food prices appear to be on the rise, we actually spend less on our food today than we did a generation ago, thanks to modern food production practices. The ultimate price, however, may be greater than anyone ever expected.
For starters, modern agricultural practices are taking a heavy toll on soil and environmental health, and the way we raise animal foods, especially in the US, results in animal products that are far inferior compared to their ancestral past.
The practice of raising animals in confined feeding operations (CAFOs) is also having a major detrimental impact on our environment and is a primary source of environmental pollution and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Last year, 63 million tons of beef was produced worldwide.1 As stated in the film, while making up only five percent of the world’s population, Americans consume nearly 20 percent of all the beef produced globally.
But just how is all this beef produced? The film summarizes how the typical cow makes its way from birth to slaughter in the US. A generation or so ago, cattle would be mostly pasture-raised and sold for slaughter around the age of two or three. The meat would then be taken to the local market.
Today, California cows start out being raised on pasture for about six months before being sold, typically changing hands twice, before ending up in a CAFO feedlot. Feedlots, which were introduced after World War II, are large pens that house tens of thousands of cattle—some can hold herds up to 100,000 animals.
Here, they’re fattened up on a corn-based diet before being slaughtered about four or five months later. All in all, today’s beef is grown in about half the time compared to a generation ago.
Besides corn, virtually all beef sold in American grocery stores comes from cattle injected with hormones. Corn fattens the cattle, but consumers don’t like all that gristly fat, so hormones are used to make the animal produce more lean muscle tissue. This improves profits, as it increases the animals’ growth by about 10 percent.
Ironically, as Faryon points out, it’s the corn that makes the cattle fat, so if we didn’t feed them corn, we wouldn’t have to give them hormones to minimize fat production. Another question well worth pondering is this: with all this hormone-laced beef, along with the American corn-based processed food diet (think high fructose corn syrup), is it any surprise Americans are growing fatter, faster, as well?
Farmed Fish—Feedlots of the Sea...
Industrial fish farming, or aquaculture, is the fastest growing form of food production in the world.2 About half of the world’s seafood now comes from fish farms, including in the US, and this is expected to increase. At first glance, farmed fish may seem like a good idea to help protect wild seafood populations from overfishing while meeting the nutritional needs of an ever-expanding global population.
In reality, however, the industry is plagued with many of the same problems surrounding land-based CAFOs, including pollution, disease and inferior nutritional quality. It’s getting so bad that fish farms can easily be described as “CAFOs of the sea.” Here we see an even greater distortion of the food chain. Wild fish eat other fish, but farmed fish can be fed a concoction of ingredients they’d NEVER encounter otherwise, such as soy protein and beef or chicken byproducts, including cattle blood, bone, and chicken feathers.
The reason for this is because, as explained by Jeffrey Graham in the film, it takes about five pounds of fish to produce one pound of growth in salmon. This clearly negates the original rationale for fish farming, which is to prevent the depletion of natural fish stocks. The solution is to replace the fish meal in the diet with soy protein and other protein products...The question is, is this really a healthy solution?
Europe has banned processing byproducts from cattle due to the potential risk of spreading mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), a neurodegenerative disease that can affect humans eating contaminated beef. While there have been no reports of humans contracting mad cow from eating farmed fish, the theoretical possibility is there. Besides that, it seems clear that a fish that eats meat byproducts opposed to its natural diet of other fish is not going to have the same nutritional makeup as wild fish.
Then there’s the increased risk of fish diseases spreading to wild fish. The close quarters where farmed fish are raised (combined with their unnatural diets) means disease can spread quickly, and because farmed fish are often raised in pens in the ocean, pathogens can spread like wildfire and contaminate any wild fish swimming past. I wrote about this last summer in the article “Salmon Confidential.”
The Unsavory Truth About Factory Farmed Chicken
Large commercial chicken facilities typically house tens of thousands of hens and can even go up to hundreds of thousands of hens who, yet again, are fed a diet consisting primarily of corn. Processing byproducts such as chicken feathers can also be added to the feed. Antibiotics are routinely used in most facilities, but hormones are not permitted in American-raised chickens. When it comes to labels such as “free-range” and “natural,” it’s buyer beware...
The definitions of "free-range" are such that the commercial egg industry can run industrial farm egg laying facilities and still call them "free-range" eggs, despite the fact that the birds' foraging conditions are far from what you'd call natural. True free-range eggs are from hens that roam freely outdoors on a pasture where they can forage for their natural diet, which includes seeds, green plants, insects, and worms.
When you’re housing tens of thousands of chickens, you clearly cannot allow them all to freely roam and scavenge for food outdoors. At best, CAFO hens may be let out into a barren outdoor lot for mere minutes a day. Your best source for pastured chicken (and fresh eggs) is a local farmer that allows his hens to forage freely outdoors. If you live in an urban area, visiting a local farmer’s market is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality chicken and eggs.
Can We Grow a Fair and Sustainable Food System?
Many believe the answer to world hunger is further expansion of large-scale agriculture; others place their bets on genetically engineered (GE) crops. But are factory farms and large-scale GE farming really going to solve the problem? Evidence suggests the answer is a resounding NO. In fact, our modern agricultural system is the very heart of the problem...
Modern monoculture has severely depleted soils of essential nutrients and microorganisms, and poor soil quality is a core problem facing farmers across the globe. Monoculture (or monocropping) is defined as the high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence of rotation through other crops. (Corn, soybeans, wheat, and to some degree rice, are the most common crops grown with monocropping techniques. As discussed above, corn and soy are two of the primary ingredients in feed given to livestock, be they chickens, cattle or fish.)
The Earth's soil is now depleting at more than 13 percent the rate it can be replaced due to our chemical-based agriculture system. Massive monoculture has also led to the extinction of 75 percent of the world's crop varieties over the last century. Additionally, modern agriculture is extremely energy dependent. It is estimated that every consumer in the Western world eats the equivalent of 66 barrels of oil per year. That's how much oil is needed to produce the food on your plate.
Do You Really Want to Eat Factory Farmed Animals?
If you were to grow food for you own family, my guess is that you would do so with extreme care, using the best seeds, the healthiest animals, and the least amount of chemical additives. Yet, when most people buy their food, they have no idea where it actually comes from, and conversely the people who grow this food have no idea who ends up eating it. When people are able to grow food for the faceless masses, I think it somehow justifies these terrible practices that have become commonplace: pumping animals full of hormones and drugs, dousing vegetables with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and introducing genetically modified seeds into the environment.
If you had to see the animal you were about to eat before it makes its way to the supermarket or your dinner table, would you choose one that had lived out its days in a filthy, crowded cage? One that had been mutilated and tormented, then pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, while being fed pesticide-laden grains it was not designed to eat?
Or would you choose one that had lived a nurtured and well cared for life, free to roam on pasture, see the sunlight and breathe in fresh air? One that was fed its natural diet and nothing more? The choice is obvious, which is exactly why agri-business has done such a masterful job of concealing what really goes on from the vast majority of Americans. All you see is a cellophane-wrapped package, maybe a picture of a barn with happy cows and chickens standing near. In many cases, if you could really see how that animal was raised, you would likely shield your children’s eyes, then turn away in disgust.
Factory farms allow us to be removed from taking personal responsibility for raising our own food. There is no one to be held accountable for raising garbage food or treating animals inhumanely because the system has taken on a life of its own. By far, the vast majority of food at your local supermarket comes from these polluting, inhumane farm conglomerations. So if you want to stop supporting them, you first need to find a new place to shop.
Become Part of a Growing Movement
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to find a humane and reliable source for your food -- sources that are growing food with the health of the environment and the animals as the driving forces. At LocalHarvest.org, for instance, you can enter your zip code and find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, all with the click of a button. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please also see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture -- this page is filled with resources for high-quality produce and meats in your area.
The more we all make it a point to only buy food from a source we know and trust, the faster factory farming will become a shameful practice of the past. Farmers and lovers of real food show us that change IS possible. But your involvement is required. Here are a few suggestions for how you can take affirmative action:
- Buy local products whenever possible. Otherwise, buy organic and fair-trade products.
- Shop at your local farmers market, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or buy from local grocers and co-ops committed to selling local foods.
- Support restaurants and food vendors that buy locally produced food.
- Avoid genetically engineered (GMO) foods. Buying certified organic ensures your food is non-GM.
- Cook, can, ferment, dry, and freeze. Return to the basics of cooking, and pass these skills on to your children.
- Grow your own garden, or volunteer at a community garden. Teach your children how to garden and where their food comes from.
- Volunteer and/or financially support an organization committed to promoting a sustainable food system.
- Get involved in your community. Influence what your child eats by engaging the school board. Effect city policies by learning about zoning and attending city council meetings. Learn about the federal policies that affect your food choice, and let your congressperson know what you think.
- Spread the word! Share this article with your friends, family, and everyone else you know.