Jul. 19, 2017

Let's talk livestock

The increasing consumption of animal protein is generally considered at odds with Earth's ability to feed its people. Around 70% of the grains used by developed countries are fed to animals. Livestock consume an estimated one-third or more of the world's cereal grain. The 1 billion tons of wheat, barley, oats, rye, maize (corn), sorghum and millet poured annually into livestock troughs could feed some 3.5 billion humans. But efforts to maximize yields of milk and meat can disrupt finely balanced systems. The quest for intensification in livestock farming has thundered ahead with little regard for sustainability and overall efficiency (the net amount of food produced in terms of inputs such as land and water). And, of course, the concentration of animals leads to a concentration of their wastes. Feedlots are a large source of water pollution.  

Our beef, pork and chicken are factory produced in feedlots. The word feedlot refers to a restricted and confined area in which animals are held and fed for the purpose of production. These are also sometimes called Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations. Here, animals live in tightly confined spaces surrounded by their own feces, are fed excessive amounts of unnatural feed and receive copious amounts of drugs to keep them alive and uncontaminated by bacteria.

Keeping animals at high densities spreads infectious diseases far and fast. The foot-and-mouth virus costs upwards of $5 billion each year in vaccinations and lost production worldwide. In these crowed conditions, animals are also more prone to conditions such as heat stress, a condition that occurs when the animal cannot control their body heat and can cause excessive levels in body temperature. This can result in death if not monitored properly.

Most beef cattle spend the last three months of their lives in feedlots, eating corn to reach a specified weight before slaughter. Aside from the fact that cattle are naturally meant to graze on grass for the majority of their food, there are plenty of negative health impacts that come with feedlotting. Because the cattle are often fattened on corn, which is not healthy for the cattle, they develop digestive infections requiring high doses of antibiotics. The Animal Welfare Institute of the United States states corn-fed cattle are at risk of conditions such as acidosis (bovine heart burn), feedlot bloat and liver abscesses. Cows consuming a lot of corn are more susceptible to E. coli infection, which can in turn infect people who eat the meat. Hormones are also used to fatten the cattle- our beef and other meats are chemically laden. I discussed cattle specifically, but conditions are very similar in chicken and pork factories.


  • 157 million tons of feed produced just 28 million tons of animal protein annually
  • 3 million people are sick annually from contaminated meat and poultry
  • 35,000 miles of rivers  have been polluted by hog, chicken and cattle waste
  • 60-80% of all antibiotics used in the US are used in industrial food animal production
  • 16.7 tons of hog manure are produced annually for every resident of the state of Iowa
  • companies control more than 80% of the US beef-packing market

Matthew Scully writes: “Factory farming is a predatory enterprise, absorbing profit and externalizing costs, unnaturally propped up by political influence and government subsidies much as factory-farmed animals are unnaturally sustained by hormones and antibiotics.”

Mass production of animals for maximum efficiency is unsustainable and another example of economics that are not human-scaled. For that matter, this treatment of living beings is inhumane. There are more humane ways of raising livestock for meat. Human beings have been doing it for millennia in human-scaled economies before the global economy shifted our values to constant growth and efficiency. Nature has its own form of efficiency. I love a nice steak, but the animal doesn’t need to be tortured in a mass production factory before meeting its end. They are living creatures before they become the food on our plates. There are reasons why the labels, free-range and grass-fed are becoming important when I go grocery shopping. When the means justify the ends, our ethics are challenged. Agriculture should not be another big business. See my previous blog on Local Food.