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Factory Farms

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Food mega-wholesaler Sysco pledges to liberate pigs from crates

Photo by Karen 2873.

Sysco -- the giant, often-invisible food distributor -- offers 400,000 products to the bulk of the nation’s restaurants and other institutions. It has a 17.5 percent market share, made $37 billion in sales in 2010 alone, and dispatches a cavalcade of silver trucks daily from 180 locations across the U. S.

In other words, Sysco is wholesale food in America, the same way Cargill is farming and Walmart is, well, all of retail. Or, as Salon put it back in 2009, Sysco has “come to monopolize most of what you eat.” So when the company changes a policy -- like it announced it was doing on Monday, when it pledged to do away with meat from pigs raised in gestation crates -- there is bound to be a striking ripple effect.

In a statement to the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), the company wrote: “Sysco is committed to working with its suppliers to create a gestation crate-free supply system, for the good of all. Like many of our customers, we’re going to work with our pork suppliers to develop a timeline to achieve this goal.”

As their name implies, gestation crates are essentially steel cages that keep pregnant sows confined in a space roughly the size of their bodies. They’re commonly seen -- along with battery cages for egg-laying hens -- as among the least humane livestock practices. Animal behavior expert Temple Grandin describes gestation grates as the equivalent of “asking a sow to live in an airline seat” (without lavatory privileges).

Over the course of the last year, thanks to consumer demand, and an ongoing effort by HSUS, most major players in the fast food, grocery, and food service industries have gone -- at least on paper -- gestation crate-free. The list includes Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Kraft, and Hormel (the maker of Spam). Even Smithfield Foods — the nation’s largest pork producer — has agreed to phase out the crates by 2017.

So Sysco can’t, by any means, say it’s first to make the pledge (and the company has yet to specify a timeline for the switch), but its move might have the largest impact so far on the practices farmers are using on the ground.

Read more: Animals, Factory Farms, Food

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Why should EPA regulators investigate factory farm pollution when they can go get a beer instead?

A CAFO manure lagoon. (Photo by Jeff Vanugam.)

One of the biggest water polluters in our country is the factory farm. In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report panned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to know where most of these farms were located, let alone if they were releasing their manure into rivers, lakes, and streams.

So in early 2011, the EPA announced a rule asking such farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, to submit basic information, like their address and how many animals they have, to the agency. On Friday, July 20, EPA quietly announced it was withdrawing that rule, planning instead to try to collect the data from the existing records held by states, even though it has tried that before, with poor results.

In trying to understand why the EPA would back off such a seemingly innocuous yet important data collection project, I imagined myself inside a meeting of EPA clean water officials as they made the decision to withdraw the rule.

Setting: A 10-top table in a soulless gray-hued conference room, Federal Triangle, Washington, D.C.

Official One (storms into room, slams hand on table): I wish those House Republicans would all go on a schmoozy farm tour and fall into a manure lagoon! I can't believe they accused us of flying spy drones over American farms.

Official Two (looking worn): Well, we are flying planes over factory farms in Nebraska and Iowa.

Official One: That's because we can't enforce the Clean Water Act without aerial inspections. Ever since the National Pork Producers Council sued us, the only way we can know if factory farms are polluting the water is if they tell us by applying for a discharge permit --

Official Two: Not likely.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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New report: The Farm Bureau not a true friend to farmers

The cover of a Farm Bureau brochure. The subtitle reads: The voice of agriculture.

The Washington Post says that the current drought is the worst in a half-century and the corn harvest will likely be even smaller than the USDA’s recently downsized estimates. The wacky weather in the heart of commodity agriculture country reminds me of something Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said a few years ago in a Newsweek interview about farmers' attitudes toward climate change. It read:

Stallman says most farmers aren’t worried. “We are used to dealing with extreme weather variation,” he says, pointing out that his Texas farm has seen 20 inches of rain in a single day, in the middle of a drought. “We’ve learned to roll with those extremes. If it gets a little more extreme down the road, we can deal with it.”

Yeah. Well, I don’t know how many farmers want to “roll with” this drought. Mr. Stallman, would you like to revise those remarks?

I’m guessing no. After all, the AFBF was instrumental in exempting agriculture from the ill-fated climate bill back in 2009 and Stallman has shown no interest in revisiting the issue. There remains no mention of climate change on the AFBF website.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Would you eat lab-grown meat?

woman with steakYum?

The Guardian reports on two competing efforts to generate lab-grown meat -- all of the tastiness, none of the nastiness. The intent isn't to make a niche product for vegans, but to formulate something that's indistinguishable from real meat -- and to thereby end meat production as we know it.

Winston Churchill actually predicted the rise of this industry in 1932, saying, "Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." He was off by a few decades, but scientists and entrepreneurs are working hard to make up for lost time.

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Meatifest destiny: How Big Meat is taking over the Midwest

Photo courtesy of Save Family Farms.

When the Des Moines Register ran a front-page story last week calling into question the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the state, it wasn’t environmentalists or animal rights activists who went on record against the facilities. No, the article featured ex-hog farmers who have been vocal in opposing new factory farms, as well as several Iowans who don’t want to see huge facilities -- nor the “poo lagoons” that go along with them -- take over the landscape.

Some 19.7 million pigs are raised in Iowa CAFOs every year, and that number is likely to keep climbing. A chart of livestock construction permits that ran with the Register story certainly projects growth. It reads:

2006...............310
2007.............. 252
2008.............. 218
2009................ 60
2010................. 62
2011................ 132
2012 (by 6/07).. 91

That’s right, after a "slump" in 2009 and 2010, the industry is back to its CAFO-building ways, with 91 permits issued so far this year. And remember, these are not small facilities; according to the Register, each facility contains around 4,400 hogs in two buildings.

Click to embiggen.

Looking at these numbers, it's easy to wonder: How much longer can the state (or the region for that matter) handle this kind of growth? When the nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water Watch created this Factory Farm Map back in 2007, Iowa was already one of the states most saturated with CAFOs (see image). According to the chart above, over 500 CAFOs may have been built since then. Of course not all that growth has to mean new operations -- some permits may be for the expansion of preexisting buildings -- but if even half that number resulted in new facilities, it's a cause for concern.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Your meat on drugs: Will grocery stores cut out antibiotics?

A still from a new video about antibiotics in farm animals from FixFood. Click or scroll down to watch.

Despite a high-profile lawsuit, a recent court order, and a much-hyped set of voluntary rules, it’s still not clear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to do anything of substance to stop meat producers from using antibiotics on a massive -- and massively destructive -- scale. It has been three decades since the FDA first identified the use of these drugs in livestock production as a problem. But they’re still mulling it over, apparently. Thinking long and hard.

While they think, 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being used on animals to spur growth and compensate for crowded, dirty conditions. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “superbugs” continue to show up in food and cause infections in tens of thousands of people every year (99,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available).

It’s no coincidence then that Meat Without Drugs, the campaign launched today by Consumers Union, doesn’t target the FDA or any government agency, for that matter. Instead, the advocacy group, which has been pushing for a ban on antibiotics in agriculture since the late 1970s, is targeting grocery stores.

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Food has gotten cheaper — but at what cost?

Photo by Nick Castonguay.

I’ve noticed that quite a few Grist readers have been struck by our coverage of shockingly high food prices in Inuit communities in Canada’s far north. It’s less a story of life in extreme lands than the culmination of a historical destruction of indigenous peoples’ traditional foodways combined with a conservative government’s unwillingness to help them adapt.

How appropriate then that NPR’s Planet Money, as part of its Graphing America series, should look at how America’s food spending has changed over the last 30 years. The headline figure -- the one Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is proudest of -- is that we spend just under 9 percent of our income on food, about 30 percent less than we did in 1982.

Image courtesy of NPR.

Despite the drop, our shopping baskets have stayed more or less the same -- with one notable exception. Processed foods now take the lion’s share of our collective food spending -- their share has doubled in the last 30 years.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Blame it all on my roots: Local food sees a resurgence in the South

A still from the documentary Eating Alabama.

People in Alabama love to gather and, when they do, it’s usually around football or religion and it is always fortified with plenty of food and drink. What would happen, the organizers of a recent event called the Alabama All-Star Food Festival wondered, if you gathered people just for the eating and drinking -- and elevated the discussion of local food in the region while you were at it?

Yes, there was pulled pork and white bread drowning in sauce, but the convention center where the recent All-Star Food Festival was held on account of rain was also full of Gulf shrimp and grits, local gumbo, crab cakes, and of course cold cans from Good People and Back Forty, two of the state’s three microbreweries. The building filled up with farmers, chefs, and food pioneers celebrating a new wave of Alabama food, and wafting over the sterile convention center air was the smell of a place regaining its culinary roots.

As agriculturally rich as Alabama is -- both in soil and tradition -- the state produces less than 5 percent of the food consumed there.

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Chefs’ disregard for environment leaves a bad taste

Thomas KellerThomas Keller in his kitchen. (Photo by Arnold Gatilao.)

Thanks, Thomas Keller. Now we know where you stand. When you joined forces with Andoni Luis Aduriz and came out publicly in The New York Times this week as a chef who does not feel any obligation to the environment, we heard you.“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” you asked.

You think it’s not your place, as reporter Julia Moskin puts it, “to provide a livelihood for farmers near [your] restaurants, to preserve traditional culinary arts or to stop the spread of global warming."

Yep, you’re just here to “create great, brilliant food.”

And you know what? That might make sense -- if we lived in the 19th century. Then you could just focus on making your brilliant food (it would probably be served to royalty) and someone else would do the driving, someone else the laundry, and so forth. While the farmers -- out in the countryside -- would do nothing but farm. Of course, no one would dream of writing about you in a national publication, either. You wouldn’t have to be a global citizen of an information age.

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In Argentina, factory farms replacing grass-fed beef

Estancia Ranch, one of few remaining traditional pasture-based ranches in Argentina. (All photos by Jessica Weiss.)

Buenos Aires, Argentina: It’s no secret the people here love beef.

In 1958, the average Argentine consumed 216 pounds of it per year. (For context: U.S. beef consumption peaked in 1975 at 89 pounds per person.) Argentina was once the world’s fifth largest economy, due largely to the strength of its global dominance in the beef trade. Because of a grand confluence of factors including climate and natural grass diversity, Argentina was long known as a hungry cow’s heaven -- and the arbiter of the world’s best beef.

But today, much of the country’s famous grasslands have been turned over to crops. Beef consumption and exports are way down. And lest you think it’s because overall meat consumption is down, irony would have it that Argentina is now the world’s No. 1 exporter of soymeal, No. 2 of corn, and No. 3 of soybeans, increasingly used as animal feed in China, where meat-eating is through the roof.