From the cream in our Monday morning coffee to the roast chicken at Sunday night dinner, we accrue an incalculable debt to food animals. We depend on them for nourishment. We gather festively around the cooking of a turkey or ham during holidays. Yet many people do not realize that most of the animals that grace our tables are the victims of harsh suffering long before slaughter.
Consider the modern turkey. It is far removed from the wild, native bird that the pilgrims roasted for those original Thanksgiving gatherings. Today's conventional turkey, the Broad Breasted White, is an entirely industrial creature. It is bred to grow freakishly quickly and raised on grain inside massive buildings. Most male turkeys, or Toms, become so breast heavy, they can barely stand up -- and certainly can't reproduce. Artificial insemination is the only way this man-made species survives.
Such mass-production meat factories -- called "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs -- exist for most of the animal food products Americans buy: cows, pigs and chickens. At least 90 percent of food animals in the U.S. are raised this way, and other countries are rapidly adopting the CAFO model as well. These enterprises are a perverse inversion of our idea of family farms with pigs rolling in the mud, cows grazing in pastures, roosters crowing from fence posts, and farmers interacting with the animals. At CAFOs, vast numbers of animals--100,000 cows on a feedlot, 30,000 chickens in a broiler shed, 1,000 hogs in a windowless warehouse--are confined in pens or cages, often kept alive with regular doses of antibiotics.
See photos from Dan Imhoff's book, CAFO:
As CAFOs take over the food system, it is clear that there is already plenty of animal protein in our diets. Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese each year, for example, largely because of the flood of cheap milk coming from dairy CAFOs. This is three times the per capita consumption of the 1970s. Cheese is the largest source of saturated fats in our diets, which tend to raise cholesterol levels and are linked to heart disease. Dairy products, meat, poultry, and eggs don't have to be nearly so cheap or abundant -- and yet we are raising 10 billion food animals in the United States every year.
The high costs of factory-farmed foods are being paid for by the animals, rural communities, taxpayers, and the environment. Large-scale animal operations generate the sewage output comparable to a small metropolis. The waste oozing from these highly concentrated production systems fouls the air, land, and water. Sadly, if you purchase animal products from fast food restaurants, supermarkets, big box stores, or other mainstream outlets, there is a strong chance that you are eating at the expense of someone else's community well-being.
You don't have to become a vegan or vegetarian to opt out of this system that might best be described as "organized irresponsibility." (Those are certainly viable options, however.) Some of the country's best small farmers are demonstrating that traditional methods of livestock production are practical and economically viable. They are raising locally adapted breeds of livestock on pastures where the animals eat a more natural diet, grow more slowly, and naturally socialize. These animals are also raised without routine doses of antibiotics and growth hormones, essential tools in industrial CAFO production. Third-party certification organizations such as Animal Welfare Approved have established standards combined with regular audits to encourage such humane production practices.
Still, labels can be confusing, and some like "natural" and "healthy" are misleading. The best way to know where your food comes from and how it was produced is to know your farmer.
The other way to reduce the role of CAFOs is to scale back the amount of meat we consume. Many individuals are simply orienting their meals around more grains and vegetables with smaller portions of higher quality, sustainably sourced meats, dairy, and eggs. Another groundswell is the Meatless Monday campaign, which has already been embraced by chefs, restaurants, food services, k-12 schools, and college campuses.
Attending to the conditions under which your food is raised is a profound way of giving thanks to the animals that nourish you daily. It can also lead to some of the most satisfying meals you've ever shared or tasted.
Daniel Imhoff is an author, independent publisher, and homestead farmer and the editor of CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories (Earth Aware Press, 2010). His other books include Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill (2007) and Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches (2003).