by Marion Nestle
Apr 13 2011

Let’s Ask Marion: Does Factory Farming Have a Future?

This is one of a series of occasional Q and A’s from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.

Submitted by KAT on Wed, 04/13/2011 – 9:12am.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat, aka Kerry Trueman, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KAT: We talk a lot about the factory farms that provide most of our meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, but most Americans have no idea what really goes on inside a CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

You, however, saw a number of these fetid facilities firsthand when you served on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production a couple of years ago. And industrial livestock production’s role in degrading our environment, undermining our health, abusing animals and exploiting workers in the name of efficiency has been well-documented, most recently in Dan Imhoff’s massive, and massively disturbing, coffee table book CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.

Given all the problems inherent in industrial livestock production, do you see a future for factory farming?

Dr. Nestle: I do not think factory farming is going away. Most people like meat and want to eat it, and do so the minute they get enough money to buy it.

I think a more realistic question is this: Can factory farming be done better? The interesting thing about the Pew Commission’s investigations was that we were taken to factory farms where people were trying to do things right, or at least better. Even so, it was mind-boggling to see an egg facility that gave whole new meaning to the term “free range.” And these eggs were organic, yet. The hens were not caged, but there were thousands of them all over each other. This place did a fabulous job of composting waste and the place did not smell bad. But it did not in any way resemble anyone’s fantasy of chickens scratching around in the dirt.

Factory farming raises issues about its effects on the animals, the environment, the local communities, and food safety. As someone invested in public health and food safety, I care about all of those. The effects on the animals are obvious, and those will never go away no matter how well everything else is done.

But the everything else could be done much, much better. The first big issue is animal waste. It stinks. It’s potentially dangerous. Most communities have laws that forbid this level of waste accumulation, but the laws are not enforced, often because the communities are poor and disenfranchised.

The second is antibiotics, particularly the use of antibiotic drugs as growth promoters. This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is, to say the least, not a good idea.

The factory farming system could be greatly improved by forcing the farms to manage waste and restricting use of antibiotics. This will not solve the fundamental problems, but it will help.

I’m hoping that more environmentally friendly meat production will expand, and factory farming will contract. That would be better for public health in the short and long run.

NOTE: If you’re in the NYC area, please join Eating Liberally and Kitchen Table Talks this Thursday, April 14th at NYU’s Fales Library, 6:30 p.m. to hear Dr. Nestle, Dan Imhoff, and Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss address the question “What’s the Matter with Mass-Produced Meat?” The discussion will be moderated by Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats. Event details here.

  • Doc Mudd

    Vitally interested to learn how “anyone’s fantasy of chickens scratching around in the dirt” extrapolated across all of agriculture will feed the nearly 7 billion human souls inhabiting the planet, or even the approximately 300 million eaters here in the U.S.

    Rational explanation, anyone?

    Boils down to a foolish elitist romantic fantasy, doesn’t it?

  • FarmerGreen

    Are any farmers or livestock groups invited to attend the NYU event?
    Consumers are getting exactly what they have asked for for decades: cheaper and cheaper food. Can’t tell you how many times I met consumer reps at past farm hearings to listen to them expound how consumers “can’t be made to pay more.” Or, the times NYC public officials came down hard on upstate dairy farmers who asked for better pricing, saying it would hurt NYC children. The same professionals who support their own unions expressed serious concern to us farmers asking “does this mean we might have to pay more for our food?” The only bright spot out of this is that the younger generation just might be interested in turning this ship around.

  • Chuck Jolley

    Talking about loading the dice with the interviewers question! The way it was phrased immediately took it out of the impartial journalism field and straight into the ‘We’re all agreed it’s bad so let’s jump on the bandwagon’ nonsense. Anyway, Doc Mudd is right. “Boils down to a foolish elitist romantic fantasy, doesn’t it?”

  • NYFarmer

    I hope the discussion will not regurgitate the same FAO Livestock’s Long Shadow report handed out at the NYU Food and Climate Change Conference. We are seeing a lot of research with completely different numbers on GGE emissions as well as region-specific research into livestock impact on environment. First, the EPA GGE Emissions Inventory is totally different indicating ALL of agriculture at 6% GGE, with livestock only a small percentage of that. UC Davis has done some detailed work specifically on livestock emissions in the US as well. We have heard that the FAO report is going to be re-done due to newer findings.
    Here in NY, Cornell came up with a 2% contribution of NY’s livestock to NY’s total GGE emissions coming off of the several million acres of NY’s land body devoted to ag. Hudsonia Institute has some interesting preliminary research indicating a positive correlation between livestock grazing and biodiversity in the Hudson River Valley.
    Yet, urban food discussions invariably EXCLUDE farmers and ag scientists who work on these issues. I hope the day will come when the urban experts get past their image of farmers as ignorant “rubes.”

  • Mitzi

    My grandfather’s family (he and 2 brothers in partnership) had a 60-dozen eggs/day operation in addition to a small dairy, a variety of vegetables and fruit (including an orchard with peaches, pears, and apples) on 172 acres in the 1940s-1960s. They also raised beef on grass most of the year, and pigs, and tobacco to pay the taxes. They provided eggs, milk, and produce to several small grocers in their area. Importing these items from several states away, from nasty, polluting, animal torture houses was not necessary. The chickens were CHASED outside twice a day for feeding, henhouse cleaning, and egg collection. some of the henhouses were on skids, so different parts of the farm could be “de-bugged” and fertilized. So Mr. Mudd and company, it is not an elitist dream. Dense populations have been fed by diverse farms on flood-plain land and pasturage on rocky soil unsuitable for home-building. Monocropping invites pestilence, and diversity means that if one crop fails, the farmer has 10 others. Our current system does a real disservice both to the farmer and his customers, providing an inferior product in an environmentally and personally degrading way, affecting the health of all by wasting perfectly good fertilizer as concentrated hazardous waste while the corn fields erode. We have to do better than this.

  • Doc Mudd

    I’m not convinced by your darling nostalgic reminiscence of half a century ago, Mitzi. [You do date yourself, though, dear ;>) ]

    NYFarmer makes a cogent point that dreamy elitist anti-agriculture whackadoodles tend to barricade themselves in echo chamber settings. All hateful spin, all the time. Y’all get one another worked up beyond all reality, and together get believing your own silly propaganda.

    Simply put, you don’t have the first good idea what you’re blathering about when you go off on “factory farms”…or much of anything else, for that matter.

  • Barbara

    So, Doc so called Mudd, which corporate team are you representing? Cause you obviously have an agenda, and it has nothing to do with human health and fitness.

  • foodie

    Iowa House File 589 will make it a FELONY to undercover document illegal activities inside Iowa CAFOs.

    S C A R Y !!!!

  • There are two sides of this, both fighting over the topic.

    On one hand, you have those that are deeply concerned about the quickly spreading health epidemic – obesity, disease, etc. A cause of which can be found in the way our food is processed – all the way back to how the animals are grown, fed, and cared for.

    On the other hand, you have those that are pushing for lower costs in providing food – which goes all the way back to how the animals are grown, fed, and cared for.

    Both sides have good arguments. We need healthy food, but how can the agriculture industry continue to provide low costs when the price of EVERYTHING is constantly going up?

    When you cater to one side, the other suffers.

    Is there a healthy balance?

  • Jrrd

    Doc Mudd: Have you read Nestle’s book? To provide for the 300 million eaters in the US is not as difficult as you make it seem. We produce something like 3 times as much food as we actually eat/need in this country. Not only that, the food we produce is the cheapest its ever been in human history. Hello, obesity.

  • Doc Mudd

    “We produce something like 3 times as much food as we actually eat/need in this country.”

    Oh, izzat so, jrrd? That’s something Nestle published for your consumption, is it?

    Well, ERS (the folks who actually measure such things) would beg to differ.

    But, who needs facts when it’s so much easier to let someone like Nestle or Pollan feed you full of propaganda and lead you around by the hair. So much easier than researching and thinking for oneself!

  • NYFarmer

    Fly over the United States. Look down. You will see thousands and thousands of farms. These are the mid-sized farms who make significant contributions to our food supplies.
    Kerry Trueman’s statement that “most of our dairy” comes from huge CAFO’s obscures the reality of the mid-sized farmer. Why is the debate of urban food experts centered around the dichotomy of only the huge “fetid CAFO” vs. the “friendly little organic farm” characterized above. What about the farmer of the middle…the mid-sized production farm? By keeping farmers out of your urban discussions, food talks, food writing and media coverage, you are part of the problem.
    Drive Upstate and get off at the first Thruway Exit past Albany. You’ll come upon thousands and thousands of dairy farms producing milk daily. Please get beyond the gross generalizations and drill down to take a look at farm sizes and their contributions. There is no one “Kerry Trueman” one size fits all CAFO generalization. Rather, there is diversity in the contribution of small and mid-sized farms depending upon the commodity and the region of the country.
    In your own “milkshed” where the latest urban food talk takes place, the NYC “milkshed,” we have roughly 13,400 dairy farms (Northeast Marketing Area of the Federal Milk Marketing Orders). Fully half of the milk produced comes from 11,000 tiny to mid-sized dairy farms. And, yes, the largest 1350 dairy farms produce the other half. In 2009 this equated to about 2 BILLION pounds of milk feeding the great Northeast Urban Corridor and urban populations. (much of it coming off of the working grassland ecosystems too)
    Urban food dairy discourse (usually by those in more affluent classes) centers around the tiny % of milk that is produced as certified organic or the CAFO. The rest of the farmers are quite simply ignored. This was particularly evident at Scott Stringer’s Food and Climate Conference held at NYU in December, 2009. Also evident in Michael Moss coverage of cheese promotion (could not reach out to speak with real dairy farmers in northeast) and will continue on at your meeting tonight.
    I urge you to get out and talk with farmers, invite commodity farmers to your urban meetings, talk with ag professors, even go out and visit a mid-sized farm. Get out of your “like minded huddle” and meet the farm people. You might like what you see.

  • Doc Mudd

    I dunno, NYFarmer; I wouldn’t let ’em anywhere near my place. They’re a hateful bunch and too full of propaganda to know what they’re looking at if you were courteous enough to show them. Best run ’em off if they come poking around and lecturing you how to farm…or how to feed your kids…or how to repair your tractor…etc.

    When these folks come slinking around it’s not because they admire or respect you. It’s certainly not because they have anything worthwhile to share with you. You can bet the farm they are looking to put a hurtin’ on ya in the cruelest fashion they can devise. Don’t get sucked in.

  • NYFarmer

    Doctor Mudd, Well, nobody has come around so far. In my lifetime, I watched 550,000 dairy farmers get out, leaving about 54,000 of us in the country. My farm has survived this Farmageddon. Between us we hold multiple agricultural science and animal care degrees, the cattle are well tended, we make use of the natural grasslands and have lands sheltering threatened species. But, no, so far, no one from the City seems interested.
    I have faced some intensive interrogations by people in NYC and Los Angeles though, questioning me if our cows were allowed to eat grass. I was accused by perfect strangers in LA of “pumping the cows full of antibiotics and all kind of hormones.” NYC foodie people sometimes sniff and grow cold if I say that our farm is not “certified” organic.
    I was only hoping to introduce urban thinkers who maybe have only a liberal arts education to the sciences of agronomy, animal nutrition, pathology, meats, field crops, agricultural economics, dairy science, you know….all the fields of studies that agricultural professionals train in. So far, no dice. The talks are uniformly focused on one area….CAFOs and ag scientists and farmers are not welcome to participate. It kinda makes the rest of us feel invisible.

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, you are a trooper. Best of luck to you – keep your guard up.

    I do sincerely wish these folks could be safely reasoned with, I truly do.

  • Catalina

    This post is comes in great time now that the random study on meat and Staphylococus Aureus is out!

  • Madeleine

    Marion talks about reducing amounts of antibiotics utalized to ensure a healthier factory farm, however I believe we should go one step further. Re- intergrating sustainable practises such as carbon cycling back into farming practices will ensure productive, efficient and natural food production.

  • Anne Dominguez

    Factory Farming is plain and simple inhuman, and hazardous to our health. Shut down the doors for good. We still have farmers where the animals see light of day and free to roam around. The obesity and health of the people in this country is only increasing due to our eating habits and the what is in our food. I think if people ate less meat, we wouldn’t need factory farming. I think if fast food chains didn’t exist which plays big part in promoting obesity in this country, factory farms will fade away. We don’t need to eat meat to stay alive. As a matter of fact vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes are sufficient for optimum health. I am a vegetarian after finding out about factory farming. I have taken a step to stop animal cruelty, to prevent cancers, obesity and diabetes and everyone else is able to do so as well. We just need to be a little open minded and give the animals a chance as well as our health and bodies.

  • Dr. Nestle,

    My husband and I own a farm in Central Nebraska where we raise crops and cattle. While my husband’s family has been involved with farming for several generations, I am a “city kid” who married into the rural life. I met my husband at Dartmouth College in the early 90’s and we moved to Nebraska in 1997.

    Today, I manage the cattle side of our farm. I have a cattle feed yard where we raise approximately 3000 animals at a time. I am classified as a CAFO and hold environmental permits from both the State of Nebraska and the EPA. I would like to invite you to follow my blog to learn about my cattle feed yard. I try very hard to achieve transparency on my farm so that folks can see “how I raise beef”. I hope that perhaps you would find it interesting to see the day to day operations of a cattle feed yard through the blog.

    All the best,