The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
Edited by Daniel Imhoff
Published by The Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media, first edition 2010
Each chapter in this extensive collection of essays on factory farming is written by a different author. The authors I’m most familiar with are Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. One of the first chapters is written by Andrew Kimbell who looks at some of the historical aspects and ideologies behind how we got where we are vis-a-vis industrial animal factories. He and other authors give several examples of what happens when science is separated from morality or feeling. Genetic engineers produce or try to produce chickens without feathers and pigs with more meat that are so deformed they can’t walk. Feedlot operators crowd cows so close they end up coated with their own excrement. Keeping that waste out of the meat is almost impossible when it comes time to butcher, so their solution is to hose the carcasses off with toxic chemicals and irradiate them. Hog factories confine the animals to crates insuring these tortured creatures are in pain their entire lives. Chickens suffer similar fates.
How do people who participate in this horror live with themselves? Kimbell expounds on what he calls cold evil. Unlike the more familiar hot evil that seethes with rage and violent emotion, this cold evil feels nothing. These animals are not viewed as living beings, but as machines. Their screams are the equivalent of the screeching sound your car makes when a belt is worn out or improperly adjusted. The screams don’t mean pain, just malfunction. There are no living animals on factory farms, only production units. Cold evil has no empathy. It does not recognize good or evil. Nothing is good. Nothing is evil. Everything merely exists. It is machine-like in its indifference. There is a cult of objectivity lurking in the purest scientific circles. Some of the most extreme members of this cult claim they don’t recognize the reality of anything that can’t be measured, quantified, touched or seen. Such a view doesn’t stand up to very close inspection. That rationale may conveniently dispose of feelings but does it really make sense to think that way? What is a thought? Can it be measured or is it tangible? Such a paradigm destroys thoughts, science, philosophy, ideas, and itself just as completely as feelings.
Wendell Berry also touches on the effects of ruthless, amoral science. If all of nature is just a mechanism or collection of mechanisms, the objective is to force the mechanism to work better, faster, or more efficiently. If nature won’t do it, then we will replace nature with technology and factories that will. The goal is always greater capacity and efficiency. The factories get bigger and consume more and more resources, including land. That leads to less room and less tolerance for landowners who work with nature. Thereby the United States has been transformed from a land of owners connected to life-giving nature into a land of employees serving a machine.
Michael Pollan several years ago bought a steer creatively named No. 534 and followed his progress from the ranch where he was born to the feedlot where he met his ultimate fate. Life on the ranch was not bad. Life at the feedlot was typical. Antibiotics are required on feedlots or the animals would all be dead shortly after arrival. Even with antibiotics they can’t last long on the large amounts of grain they are fed. Pollan talked to a veterinarian who very frankly admitted that if the cattle had a little more space and an appropriate diet, he would be out of a job.
Smithfield is one of the biggest factory farmers in the world. This company has polluted North Carolina as much as North Carolina will allow so they have moved on to Romania and Poland to see how much they can get away with there.
Factory farms are not just confined to land either. They are doing the same kind of thing in the sea with fish. On land and sea the toxicity of these operations threatens not only themselves but the wildlife around them.
All this is not bad enough, so they pile genetic modification on top of all that. And cloning. The strange thing about genetic engineering and cloning is that they don’t work. Genetically engineered crops are not more robust or more productive than their conventional counterparts. They are certainly more expensive. Over ninety percent of cloning attempts fail completely and less than one percent produces anything close to a healthy adult. The only reason factory farms can begin to compete with small farms, besides the support of government subsidies, is the fact that they can legally get away with destroying their environment. Small farms can’t.
Biodiversity is in rapid decline. Factories are not interested in diversity. They want consistent results that come as efficiently as possible. They look for one optimum breed and ignore all the others. In the dairy industry, the Holstein is over-bred while other breeds disappear. In the chicken industry, White Leghorns and White Cornish Cross boilers rule. Not only do we lose variety but the situation is dangerous because pandemic disease is a much greater threat within a monoculture. If a disease comes along that wipes out all Holsteins it would be nice to have other breeds to fall back on that are immune. It was this emphasis on a single species of potato that led to the crop disaster that produced the Irish potato famine.
Joel Salatin has said elsewhere that a culture that abuses its animals will abuse its people. We are there. Steve Striffler goes into some detail about conditions on a butchering line. At times and in many places there are no bathroom breaks. If you need to go, you go right there on the line. If you get hurt, you just keep working. If you can’t, you are out of a job. If there is a nurse in the plant, she gives you an aspirin and sends you back to work. Large operations knowingly truck in undocumented immigrant workers who won’t complain about conditions because they fear getting in trouble or being shipped back to their home country where things may be even worse. The work is painful, backbreaking and mind-numbing. Turnover is high because no one can take it for very long. While we sanctimoniously look down our noses at sweat shops and slave labor in Asia or elsewhere, we ignore the very same squalor in our own backyard.
This book is seriously depressing. You can tell what you are in for just by looking at the cover photo of the dim interior of a hog concentration camp. Given the subject matter this is hardly surprising but the gloom and doom is relieved somewhat by solutions offered in the last several chapters. There are some good suggestions, but I see the letters FDA or USDA a number of times with little explanation as to how these industrycontrolled parts of the problem are to be magically converted into part of the solution.
Almost at the very end of the book, however, we get a philosophical breath of fresh air from Joel Salatin. His solution does not depend on the beneficence of the FDA or USDA or their industrial puppet masters. In fact, he points out that the right answers will not come from pinstripe suits. He paints a hilarious picture of big dairy’s ultimate dream of a single giant cow connected by pipelines to the whole country. We need to go back to many small farms and more locally sourced food. He illustrates how this can be done with an interesting observation about Havana, Cuba, a city of over two million people. When Cuba’s cheap energy from the Soviet Union ended, things had to change in a big way. Around three-quarters of the food consumed in Havana is now produced on scores of small lots right within the city limits.
Mr. Salatin has his own unique way of articulating his agreement with other authors on the problem with modern science. He points out that “Greco-Roman Western reductionist linear systematized fragmented disconnected compartmentalized thinking” is not working. As I have said elsewhere, and I know Joel Salatin would agree, I’m not against science or technology per se, just this modern caricature of science. Science minus morality equals GMO, CAFO, etc. I prefer science with a set of morals and a heart, science that understands that there is a more important question than, “Can we do it?” More importantly, “Should we do it?” I prefer science and technology that thinks deeper than dollars and works with nature instead of trying to destroy or enslave it. It is impossible to completely agree with every detail that the many authors of this book bring up but the overall work is very thorough and well done. My natural thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2013.