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Beyond Protein Factories

Our taste for cheap meat has industrialized agriculture, drained natural resources and hurt our health. There has to be a better way.

By Mat Edelson • Photography by Chris Hartlove

At the 172-acre, family-run One Straw Farm, they know their animals by name. There's Easy, the world's most energetic duck-chasing Labrador; Houdini the Spanish goat; and Carl the Berkshire pig.

Considering he'll eventually be somebody's bacon, Carl is living the swine equivalent of the life of Riley. No pens for Carl; instead he bunks down with 20 of his piggy buddies in a converted hay-strewn greenhouse, where huge hay bales on three sides serve as windbreaks. There's not a single antibiotic coursing through Carl's body. His feed is completely free of genetically modified organisms. Heck, he even gets an occasional beer (a Corona last time, no lime) with his slop. Carl will spend his final weeks living off acorns, foraging in the near wild in woods adjoining the northern Maryland farm. Seen through a meat eater's lens, it's an idyllic setting, as humane as animal production gets.

But it begs two questions: Is this a viable alternative to the modern approach to industrial food animal production? If not, do we need to revisit the demand for meat?

The numbers tell the tale. Most people choose to eat meat. In a 2010 paper, economists estimated that 2 percent of the U.K. population was vegetarian. In the U.S., a 2012 Gallup poll found that roughly 5 percent of Americans were vegetarians. A 2008 report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the average American ate 221 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2005. For many societies, the growth in wealth is reflected in the amount of meat they consume: According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization data, China's rising middle class has caused more than a 22-fold increase in yearly meat production since 1980. It's not the One Straw Farms of the world that have made this protein-palooza possible. Instead, it's the rise of industrial food animal production (IFAP).

IFAP is the assembly-line organizing principle driving so-called Big Ag, particularly the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Unlike tiny One Straw Farm's score of pigs, a large CAFO, as defined by EPA, processes at least 2,500 swine, 1,000 head of cattle, 125,000 chickens or 10,000 sheep or lambs. Many CAFOs are much larger. (See page 7.) This industrial revolution of farming, which mostly has taken place since the 1970s, allows roughly 40 U.S. poultry companies to process 9 billion broiler chickens annually.

It also has made the retail price of meat more affordable. In 2005, Americans spent 2.1 percent of their annual income on red meat and poultry-half of what they spent in 1970, according to the Livestock Marketing Information Center. Reduced prices helped Americans increase their red meat and poultry consumption by almost 14 percent from 1970 to 2005.

Many would see more affordable meat as a good thing; however, public health researchers say IFAP has immense hidden costs. Environmentally, animal waste effects are enormous. IFAP-confined animals produce more than three times as much waste annually-500 million tons-as humans, according to the 2008 Pew report. Most surface water and shallow ground-water pollution by IFAP is through spraying waste on fields and excess manure application to croplands. The waste can overwhelm soil capacity for absorption, polluting waterways and creating algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of water and create fish-killing "dead zones." Air pollution by ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as well as by danders, endotoxins and dried manure, is also a major problem.

CAFO waste and CAFO-produced meat put humans at risk for antibiotic- resistant infections and other serious medical issues. IFAPs use a tremendous amount of antibiotics prophylactically at sub-therapeutic doses. (Some 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animal production, most administered through feed or water.) "The majority of the antibiotics sold for use in food animals are the same ones we use in clinical medicine," says researcher Keeve Nachman, PhD '06, MHS '01. "That's a big part of the worry." Numerous investigations at the Bloomberg School and elsewhere are looking at the effect of all these antibiotics and their impact on human health. (See page 14.)

In addition, significant ethical issues involving animal treatment exist. In many cases, the animals live and/or meet their demise in appalling conditions. An October 2013 Washington Post story, based on USDA data, found that instead of being euthanized, "nearly a million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses."

Equally disturbing are so-called gestation crates, intended to manage conflict between sows in the crowded conditions of CAFOs and to protect piglets from being crushed by the sow. The crates, which tightly confine sows, limit movement and all normal behaviors. Though they're being banned in many countries, University of Missouri researchers found in 2012 that, in U.S. CAFOs handling 1,000 or more sows, more than 80 percent of pregnant sows were put in gestation crates. A Humane Society of the United States report found that pregnant swine were so confined that they "could not turn around." The result? Distress, disease and deformities.

"No, absolutely not."

Robert Lawrence, MD, director of the Bloom-berg School's Center for a Livable Future (CLF), doesn't mince words when asked if IFAP is sustainable or even desirable.

The economic, environmental and health factors that go into the large-scale production of animal protein often live under the public's radar. Lawrence and 25 fellow CLF faculty researchers, students and staff delve into everything from massive use of arsenic and antibiotics in the industry to the amount of energy it takes to produce a pound of beef. (Hint: It's awfully high.) They're looking at both supply and demand, as well as changing American attitudes toward meat consumption.

Lawrence has few friends in the meat industry. "The Pork Council would call me a rabid vegetarian," he says. Though he does occasionally eat meat-he calls himself a "flexitarian"-Lawrence comes by his opinions honestly. He spent two and a half years as co-principal investigator of the 2008 Pew report titled "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America."

The report came up with some startling conclusions. The industry had exploded on the back of cheap energy, low-cost/high-yield animal feed crops (notably corn) and free-flowing water-none of which will last forever. Intense confinement of large numbers of animals, necessary for fast, mass processing, makes the transmission of disease a distinct possibility, even to human handlers. Then there's the animal waste, which has the very real potential to foul air, land and water, and harm people.

It's not surprising that the commission concluded that, given "the dependence on chemical inputs, energy and water, many IFAP systems are not sustainable environmentally or economically."

Things haven't improved over the past five years. If anything, it's only more obvious how our taste for meat is literally changing the American landscape, says Lawrence. "Because of the demands of concentrated animal production, most of our farm belt has turned into production for animal feed rather than feed for humans. The vast majority of the corn and soy crop goes to feed animals," says Lawrence. "With that has come loss of biodiversity and reliance on unsustainable commodities such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. The carbon content in the soil is going down, and the incredibly rich microbial environment of healthy soil has diminished."

CLF researches these and other hidden costs of CAFOs. Roni Neff, director of CLF's Food System Sustainability and Public Health program, shares a breakdown of some of the inefficiencies inherent in IFAP. "We have to start with producing the animal feed. It takes about four and a half pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken, nine and a half pounds to get a pound of pork, and 25 pounds of feed to get a pound of beef," she says. The feed requires fertilizer, and that, too, is problematic.

"One important source of the yield increases we've had is from the affordable phosphorus we've been able to put into our fertilizer," says Neff. "The supply is now a serious concern. We get most of our phosphorous from mines in just a few countries, and we could hit peak phosphorus production in the near future. That's a real concern for future food security."

Neff and her colleagues are also troubled by the human toll of IFAP, which takes many forms. A controversial USDA proposal would increase line speeds at chicken and turkey processing plants by more than 20 percent. The agency says the proposal is aimed at lowering the risk of pathogens including salmonella, though some food safety advocates say the move is more about saving the industry money than safeguarding the public's health. In an industry that Neff says has been notorious for a high-injury rate among workers, the additional line speed could also prove dangerous. "You're doing repetitive motions, in often too hot or too cold temperatures, it's slippery, you're using sharp tools. You're already doing it pretty fast [140 chickens per minute under current regulations]. Then picture doing it even faster. The risk for injuries can really escalate," she says.

Others say the concerns about industry practices extend far beyond the workplace. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria shed by chickens being trucked to processing plants have been detected.

And Jay Graham, PhD '07, MPH, MBA, now an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, discovered that flies outside homes near poultry farms carried harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant enterococci and staphylococci, matching those in poultry waste.

Low-dose antibiotics are not the only group of problematic drugs in the food chain. CLF's Keeve Nachman has been looking at arsenicals, which allegedly increase a bird's ability to absorb feed nutrients while protecting the bird's GI tract against common parasites.

"On the human health risk assessment side, I had learned to recognize arsenic as a potent human carcinogen, and the idea that feeding even a different form of arsenic to something we intended to eat sounded crazy, so I pursued it, " says Nachman.

Nachman's work initially put him into direct conflict with the FDA. According to Nachman, the agency wouldn't test chicken muscle for arsenic, claiming, "'Muscle tissue is more difficult to test. It gums up our mass spectrometers,' which is not a very good defense."

Nachman took up the challenge. His study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in May 2013 showing that the use of arsenicals increased levels of carcinogenic inorganic arsenic in chicken breast meat led the FDA and two drug companies to pull three arsenic-based drugs off the market.

It's a given that food systems are under tremendous pressure to increase production. The planet's population is expected to jump past 9 billion people by 2050. Can meat production keep up? Can we meet increasing demand without sacrificing the public's health? What's the best way forward-wholesale abandonment? Or moderation of our impulse to eat meat?

Tough questions with immense ramifications. Some experts argue that industrialization is necessary to meet demand, but IFAP needs tighter oversight to safeguard the public's health.

Lawrence argues we have little choice but to change production and demand. It's a hard sell, he knows, one in which a body of public health research must be painstakingly built before analyzing current public policy and advocating for change.

"These are sloooow disasters, the unsustainability of the high meat diet as the population grows and we diminish our soil resources and rely on fossil fuels [for fertilizer production]. We're at peak oil production, and the prices are going to go up at some point," says Lawrence.

Then, of course, there are the serious impacts on human health. Recent data from scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Cleveland Clinic, among others, have shown the direct links of high meat consumption and increased cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

"All of these things, the average person really struggles to get their arms around," says Lawrence.

Still, Lawrence says he sees a world more in balance with nature and the environment, where a diminishing taste for animal protein can be met by smaller, diversified farms that also grow vegetables (like One Straw Farm).

But the USDA, for one, isn't sure. A 2012 USDA report found that small producers of livestock are having great difficulties finding small rendering and processing plants to handle their animals. The control of slaughter facilities by the vertically integrated heavy-hitters like Smithfield and Tyson, shuts out small producers. (Solutions to the problem, however, do exist. Some small producers have partnered in developing mobile systems that process meat on site.)

Nor have the feds been much help. The six priority recommendations listed in the Pew report on IFAP have not been embraced by the current administration. At an October 2013 event at the National Press Club, Lawrence bluntly summarized government efforts by saying, "There has been an appalling lack of progress. The failure to act by the USDA and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse."

In addition, Big Meat has big money pushing against change. "It's very tough," admits Lawrence. "There's a disinformation campaign that has Americans believing the only source of protein is animals."

Still, Lawrence notes that as the body of research grows, the public's attitude about meat production and consumption may indeed be changing. CLF's partnership in the 10-year-old Meatless Monday campaign, aimed at getting Americans to consume 15 percent less meat (as recommended by a Surgeon General's report), is on the radar of half of all Americans and has received extensive media coverage. (See page 50.) In the U.K., the "meat-free Mondays" idea is also catching on, and Lawrence points to a recent report from a food trends agency that predicted that U.K. vegetable consumption would rise by 10 percent over the next two years. "Not that any of us can predict the future, but this offers an encouraging view of [consumption of] less meat and more plant-based foods," says Lawrence.

Domestically, there's also a movement by some states to eliminate those gestation crates: Colorado, California, Maine, and Rhode Island passed bills that will eventually ban such crates. Similar bans passed previously in Michigan and Oregon.

Taken as a whole, Lawrence says, "the cracks are appearing in a lot of ways," in the current model of meat consumption and production. Whether it's protecting the health of our hearts, our planet or our wallets, he says, moderation may be inevitable.