In the last 50 years, agribusiness has brought the extinction of family farms maintained for generations and generations. To meet our insanely huge need for meat in the United States, we have learned how to produce a lot of meat for a very cheap price. The U.S. needs to produce such a large amount of meat in part because of how disproportionate our meat servings are. Take an average burger from a restaurant. This burger will most likely be a half-pound of meat, when only a few decades ago, Americans were flabbergasted by the quarter-pounder’s size. A half-pound of beef is over 3 servings of meat. We don’t consider this fact because the half-pound burger is all that’s available. Because we have the means to produce so much meat at such a low price, there is no need to offer a smaller (proportionate) burger. By increasing yield through the use of fertilizers, improving soil management, expanding irrigation, controlling pests and improving cultivars, food production has doubled in the last half a century, allowing us to serve such large burgers.
However, the innovations mentioned above have only been so successful because they have been applied to industrialized farms. Small family farms that generate less than $2,500 in profits every year account for 40.8 percent of the number of farms in America, but only 0.1 percent of food production. Large farms, which make over $1 million in profits each year, account for only 2.5 percent of the number of farms in the United States, but 59.1 percent of the production. This is accomplished by manipulating the density of livestock on the farm. In Delaware alone, 51 million broilers were produced in the year 2008, bringing in 77 percent of all agricultural sales for the state that year. New legislation is being proposed to make it mandatory for the chickens to have enough room to stand up and turn around—an improvement to the current standards of the chicken farms in the state.
In North Carolina, hog farms have completely ruined the vernacular, especially in Alberta. Industrial farms hold anywhere from 2,500 to 17,000 pigs, but within an extremely small space. The pigs are fed almost entirely by computer, with no human interaction. Piglets feed from their mothers on hard cement floors, an improvement from living in their own feces. The pigs do not have enough room to turn around. This is how they live their life. The cost of the animal cruelty and neglect is not on the price tag of the burgers we buy in restaurants. Also, these feedlots do not come without environmental consequences on top of the inexcusable treatment of livestock. 100,000 pigs produce as much waste as a city of one million people. You would think these industrial farms would have sewage treatment plants, but they do not. The waste is released into the environment in liquid form through sprinkler systems. The Earth can manage waste from 300 pigs naturally, but when waste products from thousands and thousands of pigs are discharged into the environment, the waste ends up in rivers, drinking water and the air. Nearly all of the rivers in North Carolina are filled with sludge. Homeowners cannot go outside, sit on their porches or open their windows because of the smell of the feedlot. Their property values decrease by half. The industrial farm destroys the family farm business in the area. Before the industry even moves to an area, they make sure to have corporate profits reign over individual rights by buying out corrupt public officials. Residents fear for the quality of the drinking water for their grandchildren.
Yet, industrial farms are exempt from environmental regulations like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. They can dump sludge into the waterways and ruin neighborhoods. If agribusiness were not exempt from these regulations, they would have to construct a sewage treatment plant, causing the price of their pigs to go up to $1.25/lb at kill weight. This price would not allow the industries to out-compete family farms.
These costs should be offset by the benefits of agricultural industry. Even though food production has doubled in the last 50 years, food production per capita has only a 25 percent increase. We are still having monumental problems with the distribution of our food. Millions of human beings are affected by extreme hunger, while we can order three servings of meat in one sitting. Only 12 percent of the Earth’s surface is arable (farm-able), and the products of farming are anything but fairly distributed across the globe. Malnutrition (lack of certain nutrients) and under nutrition (lacking of total calories) plague so many in Africa and other developing countries.
We must reexamine our approach to agriculture in the United States. We brag that we have come so far; we have progressed and doubled our food production. But is extreme neglect and cruelty to animals truly progressing humanity? Are we even distributing all of these resources to the areas of the globe that truly need them? Or are we greedily keeping the servings of meat in America nauseatingly high (only to lead to the nutrition problems in the United States like childhood obesity)? By contaminating our air and our water for our grandchildren and destroying the rural farming tradition, are we progressing? Or are we regressing to a point where only ethics need to be cultivated?
My source for all the facts is the movie Food, Inc.: http://www.takepart.com/foodinc
Photo from Fotolia/Sattapapan Tratong