The latest health, diet, and environmental news all came from one place yesterday: the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Union’s report — "Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating" — finds that grass-fed cows produce meat and milk lower in unhealthy fats and higher in beneficial fatty acids, such as Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), than grain-fed livestock. The report also notes that grass-fed livestock farming methods do a better job of protecting water, air, and the communities that support family farms.

For those of us who routinely argue in favor of sustainable food production, the report doesn’t provide any shocking revelations. Smaller herds of animals that are treated humanely, allowed to move about freely, and eat what nature intended — grass, not grain — are naturally going to produce healthier food. So how is it that we’ve reached the point where we need a team of Ph.Ds and a respected research institution to prove it?

Carefully hidden from the view of the 99% of us who aren’t farmers lies the coiled serpent we call the industrial food system. In depopulated and increasingly desperate rural communities across America, remaining locals and immigrant workers have been forced into a kind of modern servitude to factory dairy, hog, cattle, and poultry farms. It is from these places that most of our food is produced today.

Slip past the security gate of Don Oppliger’s Land and Cattle Feedlot in eastern New Mexico and you’ll see 35,000 head of beef cattle. Confined to small dusty pens, they eat nothing but a rolled corn flake ration until they’re sent to the slaughterhouse. The constant shuffling of hooves raises a bacteria-laden dust cloud that’s carried by the prevailing winds into west Texas. At one end of the complex sits a giant lagoon which catches the operation’s wastewater, chemicals, urine, antibiotics, and other effluvia. A tour of the feedlot requires you to roll up the truck windows tightly to keep the flies out. In the narrow strip of ground that separates the fencing from the feedlot’s service roads lie the carcasses of dead cows (a.k.a. “downers”), their eyes bugged out, tongues dangling, bellies swollen in the summer heat.

While none of Oppliger’s cattle will taste a blade of grass, at least they are outdoors. By comparison, indoor factory hog farms confine their animals 20,000 at a time to low-ceilinged warehouses only 100 feet in length. They generate an odor so intense it would knock a buzzard off a crap wagon. According to Anita Poole, legal counsel for the Kerr Center, an Oklahoma organization that’s fought that state’s capitulation to the hog industry, “The average Joe Blow who might stumble into a hog facility would never want to eat pork again.”

Texas County, Oklahoma was home to 11,000 hogs in 1990, but thanks to the Seaboard Corporation and all-too-willing local officials, the county now hosts over a million hogs. Because of contaminated water run-off from the hog farms, both groundwater and surface water quality have declined. Even worse, the Ogallala Aquifer upon which the region depends for its water is being rapidly depleted. The Oklahoma Water Resource Board reported that water levels in many Texas County wells have dropped 50 to 100 feet over the last 30 years, due in large part to high water demand created by factory hog operations and the irrigated farm land that supports them.

Got Milk? Got Problems!

Got milk? Eat Taco Bell cheese? Slurp Yoplait Yogurt? Chances are increasing every day that the main ingredient for these products comes from New Mexico, now the nation’s seventh largest and fastest growing dairy state. Concentrated in the state’s southeast quadrant, New Mexico’ factory dairy farms have increased their herd size at least five-fold in the last 10 years. And along with this increase has come a severe rise in groundwater contamination (about 60% of the state’s dairy wells exceed allowable nitrate standards), air pollution (the asthma rate for this region of the state is nearly three times higher than the state average), and the cost of community services (expenses for schools, social services, police, and prisons have grown rapidly).

If you happen to be cruising down a New Mexico highway, you’re likely to encounter a billboard paid for by one of the state’s dairy associations that modestly proclaims the goodness of milk. The scene is of a small herd of black-and-white Holsteins grazing contentedly on very green grass with a lovely red barn in the background. If those cows were alive and really from New Mexico, they’d probably think they had died and gone to Vermont.

A real scene from one of the state’s factory dairy farms would be decidedly less pleasing. The picture would be of thousands of cows slithering about in steel pens, amidst dust and manure, without a stem of grazeable grass for miles around. No frolicking about on mellow pasture for these girls, no sir; it’s in and out of the 100-cow milking parlor two or three times per day until the age of 2, at most 3, when they are then sent off to the hamburger factory. In addition to regular doses of antibiotics, they will be given artificial bovine growth hormones that stimulate milk production beyond their natural limits.

When you pick up a gallon of organic or sustainably produced milk in the supermarket and say, “Zowee! This is $5.49; I can get the regular stuff for $2.89,” you should know what you’re paying for — and not paying for. Smaller herds of cows spending some if not all of their lives on grass, and not pumped up with growth hormones, produce a more costly milk than factory farms. And who pays for the asthma victim’s long-term health care, the contaminated water, and the escalating local school expenditures? Not the factory farm dairies that may be the cause, and not consumers who are simply grateful for cheap milk. When these costs are paid at some indefinable point in the future, they are paid by the victims, the taxpayers and, of course, the environment.

The End Game?

Dr. Charles Benbrook is a former executive director of the Board of Agriculture for the National Academy of Sciences. His professional work includes studies of the dairy industry, whose growth west of the Mississippi he finds “very perplexing.” Among his comments regarding large, western dairy farms: “If the dairy industry in the Southwest was forced to pay the real cost of water, it would quickly move to the Upper Midwest and Northeast.” When I asked him what he thought about the future of the Southwest dairy industry, he said that it was “patently unsustainable because in not less than five years, but surely no more than 20, the dairy waste stream will overwhelm the absorptive capacity of the local environment.”

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has said essentially the same thing. In a 2004 resolution, APHA said

Considering the health and economic impacts on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) workers … children and CAFO neighbors from exposure to large concentrations of manure … dust, toxins, microbes, antibiotics and pollutants … APHA urges federal, state and local governments to impose a moratorium on new CAFOs until additional scientific data … have been collected.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report has brought us one step closer to understanding the human health benefits of a more traditional form of livestock raising that respects the land, water, air, and animals. At the same time, the form of agriculture proponents tout as “modern” but we critics scorn as “industrial" continues to demonstrate that it lives beyond the capacity of natural systems to support it.

As consumers who want what’s best for our bodies, we may have to spend a little more on food products that support smaller scale, sustainable farms. As citizens who want clean air and water, and can see the value of viable farming communities, we may need to raise a little hell with our policymakers. Shop like your life depends on it, but vote like the lives of others depend on it.