Industry Insider Speaks Out About the Hazards of Industrialized Agriculture

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pandemic outbreaks are becoming more prevalent in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), revealing the inherent flaws of industrialized animal farming
  • When you remove diversity from a farm, you raise the risks of the operation; the system currently makes consumers and taxpayers pay the cost of the increased risks associated with the specialization of CAFO’s
  • While transitioning to a more sustainable type of food system may eventually result in farm cost increases of eight to 12 percent, the actual price you pay for the food would only rise about two percent

By Dr. Mercola

It's been eight years since bird flu was a concern in the United States, but now it's back again, and it's particularly integrated into confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Dr. John Ikerd, who has a PhD in Agricultural Economics, is an industrial agriculture insider, making him a rare voice to speak out against the conventional model.

He grew up on a dairy farm, and also gained experience working for Wilson & Co. — at that time, the fourth largest meat packing company in the country — and Kansas City stockyards.

After obtaining his PhD, he worked as an extension livestock marketing specialist and an agricultural economist, spending the first 15 years of his academic career promoting industrial agriculture, which includes large-scale CAFO’s.

Financial Crisis Revealed Fundamental Flaws in Big Ag Model

It wasn't until the financial crisis hit farmers in the 1980s that he began to reconsider what he'd been taught, and what he'd been teaching farmers.

As it turned out, the farmers who were hit the hardest by the recession were the ones who had diligently followed the advice of Dr. Ikerd and other industry experts.

"'Get big or get out' was this idea of industrialization to get larger and larger. Many farmers followed our advice during the 1970s [and] borrowed heavily in order to expand their operations," Dr. Ikerd says.

"When the 1980s came along, farmers were caught with huge debts at record-high interest rates, and they simply couldn't pay off the loans. By that time, I'd moved to the University of Georgia, and I was head of the Department of Extension Agricultural Economics.

It was the responsibility of my department to go out and work with these farmers who were losing their farms. We tried to figure out some way they could make the farm profitable; if not profitable, then maybe they could get out of agriculture while they still had some equity left.

Or at least we tried to talk them out of killing themselves... There were more than a few farm suicides around the country among the farmers faced with the prospect of losing their farms. It was a pretty intense situation...

I said, 'Look, there's something fundamentally wrong with this. I didn't get all this education and all this experience, so that I could create a system where these farmers would end up going broke.'"

He began to realize that in order for some farmers to continue to grow and get increasingly bigger, it meant that other farmers had to be forced out of business, and this had a number of unrecognized consequences.

"I said, 'Look, that kind of agriculture is not good for farmers.' Then, I began to look around, and I could see that it wasn't good for the rural communities that depended upon those farms.

There are places in North Missouri, for example, that lost 20 percent of their total county population during those periods of time because the family farmers couldn't make a living on the land, and those rural communities depended on those family farmers for businesses."

Now, with the advent of an increasing number of serious disease pandemics, the flaws of the "bigger is better" model has become even more evident...

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How CAFOs Promote Disease Epidemics

The first bird flu pandemic was launched upon the American public in 2005, with repeats in 2006, 2007, and again in 2008, followed by the threat of a swine flu pandemic in 2009. I actually wrote a book about the initial bird flu scare, which became a New York Times bestseller, called The Great Bird Flu Hoax.

At one time, they warned two million people could potentially die from this disease. Yet to this day, I'm not aware of anyone in the US ever dying from bird flu. It has however become a serious threat to CAFOs.

“The reason I was giving you that background is I think what we’re seeing right now is inherent within this system of agricultural production,” Dr. Ikerd says. “What we’re seeing in terms of the bird flu is a consequence of concentrating hundreds of thousands of birds in these [space-wise] small operations.”

Prior to CAFOs, when a virus would emerge, some small farms would lose part or all of their flock, but the numbers would be limited. It wouldn't turn into a massive epidemic where millions of birds are affected and the disease spreads like wildfire across the entire country.

"The background in terms of the industrialization of agriculture, in my opinion, is very directly related to what we're talking about here in terms of the spread of the bird flu," Dr. Ikerd says.

"In 2013 and 2014, we had the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv). Seven million pigs dead in that case, and that virus spread through these large-scale confined animal feeding operations in much the same way we saw with the bird flu.

[Then there's] the honeybee colony collapse... I can tell you what the problem is... it's the industrialization of the pollination industry... packing hives up on trailer trucks and hauling them across the country.

It’s the specialization, standardization, and consolidation into larger and larger units. That’s the reason we’re having these outbreaks and will continue to have these outbreaks.”

How CAFOs Profit from Livestock Pandemics

The bird flu reemerged with a vengeance in CAFOs last year. In Iowa, 70 different CAFOs lost a total of 29 million chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Minnesota lost 8.3 million birds, mostly turkeys. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates a total of 45 million birds were lost, with an economic impact totaling $1 billion.

"The USDA came in to prop up these industrial operations with the allocation of 413 million dollars, [which is] what I call the bail-out fee for the failed CAFO industry. That would be about nine dollars per bird of taxpayers' money to subsidize [CAFOs].

Basically, we're subsidizing these specialized operations. We know there's inherent risk when you go to the specialization and standardization. Diversity is the means by which we manage risk in agriculture, in business, or anywhere else.

But when you go to these specialized operations, you're taking away the diversity, and inherently, you're involved in a much riskier operation when you're just producing one commodity or one phase of production like egg production. We're paying the cost of the increased risk that's associated with the specialization of these large operations."

During the PEDv pandemic, an estimated seven million pigs were lost, and the economic impact was estimated at $350 million. In that case, the US government allocated $11 million dollars to cover CAFO losses. However, the price of pork also went up, so the CAFOs actually profited from the pandemic and the loss of all these pigs.

"This is inherent within this system. That's the point I'm getting at," Dr. Ikerd says. "The bird flu outbreak is just a symptom of a much larger problem that goes across pigs, cattle, honeybees, and crops. We have a failed system of agriculture production in this country."

Virtually All Agricultural Programs Subsidize CAFOs

According to Dr. Ikerd, virtually every program that has come out of the USDA during his career has in one way or another subsidized specialized, standardized, and consolidated production. Consumers ultimately pay the cost of the risks inherent with these types of operations. We also pay for subsidized credit that allows farmers to expand their operations.

“I think it was all intended well. When I was out here talking to farmers about specialized, standardized, “get bigger or get out,” I really thought it was for the basic good of the consuming public, because what we were told, and what we believed, was that we were going to make good, safe, and wholesome food affordable for everyone. We were going to bring down the cost of agriculture production. It would bring down food costs to the point where everyone could have access to enough wholesome foods to support a healthy, active lifestyle. But we didn’t do that.”

Today, we have a higher percentage of people who are food insecure or go hungry in the US than we had in the 1960s, before widespread industrialization started. About 15 percent of Americans are now classified as being food insecure. More than 20 percent of American children live in food insecure homes.

So while the industrialization of agriculture lowered production costs, and to some extent made certain foods (read processed foods) less expensive, the system has completely failed to secure food for all. Forty percent of the US corn crop in the last several years has in fact gone toward producing ethanol rather than producing food for hungry people.

As Dr. Ikerd notes, "that's the part of that industrial agricultural system that's driven by the economic bottom line — the system I promoted. I look back now and I see the flaws in that system, but it took me a while to realize that not only was this system not good for the animals, for the farmers, for the land, and for the whole community; it wasn't even good for consumers. The problems we're creating pose real public health risks for the consumer."

Diversification and Decentralization Is the Solution

Sustainable agriculture is the answer to these and many other related problems. While it may not be the easiest solution, implementation wise, it's the best and most logical solution in the long term. Sustainable agriculture balances the need to produce food to be economically viable and efficient with a need to take care of the land, and support rural communities and society as a whole.

Dr. Ikerd became involved in the sustainable agriculture movement in the late 1980s, the most visible part of which is the growth of organic food production. In terms of sales, organic foods grew at a rate of 20 percent per year during the 1990s, up to the Great Recession of 2008.

Today, organic food sales are growing at a rate of more than 10 percent annually, yet as a whole, it still represents less than five percent of the total food sales. More recently, the local food movement has been the most dramatic development in the food economy. There's been a quadrupling of the number of farmers' markets in the last 20 years, and CSAs have grown from practically nothing to about 12,000 to 14,000.

"I think we're in the process of creating a fundamentally new and different food system," Dr. Ikerd says. Part of this is the creation of local food networks the USDA calls "food hubs." At present, there are more than 300 food hubs across the US, where farmers sell to local customers.

"I think what we're seeing here is the evolution of the change in the food system. I really think that it's inevitable, because this industrial food system is simply not sustainable. It's not ecologically sound. It's not socially responsible. And over the long run, it can't be economically viable," he says.

Some people question whether sustainable or organic agriculture would be economically viable, or whether that might make food insecurity even worse by raising food prices too high. According to Dr. Ikerd, while transitioning over to a more sustainable type of food system may eventually result in farm cost increases of eight to 12 percent, the actual price you pay for the food would only rise about two percent.

“What we have to look at here is that currently, only about 20 percent of what we pay for food at the grocery store is at the farm level. In other words, you can have a significant increase in the cost of production at the farm level without having a major impact on the consumer level. For example, it would cost you 10 percent more to produce [sustainable food] at the farm level, and the farm level is only 20 percent of the total value. That’s only a two percent increase in [retail] food cost.

We need to keep in mind that we're not talking about something that's totally out of the realm of possibility here. We can certainly raise birds in a competitive way in the smaller operations. How much smaller do we have to get in order to get away from the problems? I think part of it is bringing poultry into a more diverse operation that has other operations on the same farm.

Other things are going on so you don’t end up with mountains of poultry manure that you have to get rid of. You end up with poultry manure that’s just adequate to fertilize your pasture where you’re raising beef cattle on grass, for example. Or you’re raising hogs on pasture. Or you’re growing other kinds of crops. We need to move to more diversified operation.”

Agroecology and Other Sustainable Agriculture Systems

Contrary to popular belief, around 70 percent of the global population is fed by food produced by small independent farms operating at subsistence level, not by industrial agriculture. On those small independent farms, production can be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled, without replicating an industrial system. The most popular system right now, according to Dr. Ikerd, is called agroecology.

It's a diversified farming system where you build up the fertility of the soil, and you manage crops and livestock in an integrative system. This not only allows you to maintain the fertility of the soil, it also helps you manage pests and curtail diseases. Diversification inherently means reduced risk across the board. Permacultures and biodynamic farming are also popping up, especially in Eastern countries. In China and Japan, they call it nature farming. All of these are different approaches that fall under sustainable agriculture.

"There are at least five major UN reports that have come out in the last few years that are saying that industrial agriculture is not the answer to feeding the growing global population. They're increasingly moving toward supporting agroecology, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, and natural farming – these alternative systems of production," Dr. Ikerd says.

"It's just propaganda in this country that says we have to have industrial agriculture. We don't need it to feed the people here. We can certainly make a transition to an agriculture that costs us 10 to 15 percent more [at the farm level], and it wouldn't be a major shock.

In fact, when we decided to have corn ethanol in this country – and we put 40 percent of our corn crop into ethanol rather than feed for livestock – the cost of food went up by about as much as it would have gone up over the long run if we're to make a total transition to sustainable agriculture. In the past 20 years, food costs have gone up faster in this country than the overall inflation rates. All the propaganda about industrialization of agriculture being necessary to provide food for people; to keep food cost down and so on — it hasn't, and it hasn't for the past 20 years."

CAFOs Should Be Treated Like Any Other Factory Industry

With respect to what could be done to improve CAFOs (either that, or speed up their conversion to more sustainable operations), Dr. Ikerd suggests treating them as if they were any other factory industry. They're not like traditional agriculture, they're not diversified like a family farm, so why are they being treated like one?

CAFOs need to be held accountable for the pollution they create, the public health problems they bring, and they need to have regulations in place to address the fair treatment of workers and animals — just like any other factory enterprise. Moreover, if their subsidized risk protections were removed, they would no longer be able to compete with diversified, independent family farms. All of this would likely prompt CAFOs to be broken up into smaller, more diversified pieces.

"We just need to recognize that these are industrial operations, and we're going to run into the same kind of problems as we run in with any other industrial operations. We need to have worker protection and animal protection. We need to have public health assessments. We need environmental regulations. We need to regulate these factory farms for what they are: they're factories," he says.

Working with Nature Is the Best Way to Assure Abundance

The key to creating a sustainable agriculture is to work in harmony with nature, and to realize that every act ripples through the whole system. This interdependence can be effectively harnessed, allowing mutually beneficial relationships among diverse elements to do a lot of the work that conventional agriculture have to use chemicals and other unnatural interventions to achieve.

As Dr. Ikerd notes, nature can be tremendously supportive and productive. If you rebuild the natural health and productivity of the soil, then nature and sunlight will bring forth their bounty. Good sustainable farmers can create yields that are just as high as the average or even better than average commercial farmers. But it takes a lot of understanding of what's going on in the soil, how to integrate crops and livestock systems with the soil, and how to manage pests to maintain soil fertility.

"There's also potential for high economic returns in the future," Dr. Ikerd says. "Because in the future, those people who are able to think, create, and understand how to work with nature, those are going to be the people in high demand when this industrial food system eventually collapses.

These are new occupations. I think many of the people who are going to create this new agriculture, in many cases, are not going to be the existing farmers who are locked in with this industrial mindset, but the people who have a different way of thinking and who when we get out here on the land will use that way of thinking."

Together, We Can Steer Agriculture Toward Safer, More Sustainable Systems

According to a recent Hartman Report,1 which surveys consumer preferences, about one-third of American consumers are looking for something fundamentally different from what they're getting in their local grocery store. This includes GMO-free, organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and pesticide-free foods, and they're willing to pay premium prices for foods they consider to be safer and healthier for their families and for the environment.

"One thing, as an economist, that I continue to point out is that focusing solely on the economic bottom line, which is what I used to tell farmers to do, is what got us in to this system that we are in today. A sustainable system has to be economically viable, but that doesn't mean that you're maximizing profits...

But it does mean you’re making enough money. It provides you with the quality of life that you want, but you’re doing it in such a way that it’s humane to the animals, that protects the environment, that doesn’t threaten the public health, and that’s contributing to the quality of life in your community and society as a whole. It’s bringing all of those things together.”

You can find a variety of papers written by Ikerd on related subjects on his personal website, and on his University of Missouri website.

Healthy Food Resources

You can help steer the agricultural industry toward safer, more sustainable systems by supporting your local farmers and choosing fresh, local produce over "cheap" conventional varieties commonly sold in larger grocery chains. You can also slash your food bill by focusing on locally grown foods that are in season, typically a bargain at that time of year, or by growing some of your own. Remember to choose organic, grass-fed/pasture-raised beef, poultry, and dairy, in addition to organic produce.

While many grocery stores now carry organic foods, it’s preferable to source yours from local growers whenever possible, as much of the organic food sold in grocery stores is imported. If you live in the US, the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in the vicinity of your home:

Weston Price Foundation: Weston Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can purchase organic foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products such as milk and butter.
Local Harvest: This site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
Farmers' Markets: A national listing of farmers' markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals: The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA): CISA is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and small farms.
FoodRoutes: The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find listings for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.

+ Sources and References