Feedlots, otherwise known as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs), are massive stretches of enclosed land where cattle are housed, stuffed with grains, and eventually slaughtered. They became popular in the post-World War II era, when newly established and quickly growing fast food operations demanded more, better, cheaper meat. Nowadays, many cattle live out their lives on the noxious, congested plants, long suspected of spurring environmental problems and disease.
Most Americans know that feedlots, in theory, exist. And yet, when it comes time to imagine what such a colossal enterprise actually looks like, a space that can house over 100,000 heads of cattle, the mind often draws a blank.
British new media artist Mishka Henner was searching for satellite images of oil fields in the United States when he accidentally stumbled upon birds’-eye view images of the flattened lots. He was first intrigued by the hordes of black and white dots that permeated the landscape, which he later discovered were cattle.
Henner’s series “Feedlots” depicts seven feedlot sites out of the thousands in the United States, as seen from satellite technologies like Google Earth. From a distance, the lots hardly resemble cattle farms, or anything at all. Rather, they resemble odd, oozing, abstract watercolor paintings, punctuated with toxic, glowing greens and festering, bloody reds. These large swaths of color are, in reality, “manure lagoons” — ponds or reservoirs filled with toxic waste which pose potential danger to both the environment and individuals.
“We live in a world where the scale of these industries are so vast,” Henner told Slate. “We can’t see them, and we have no way to visualize them and as long as we can’t, then we struggle to conceptualize them and to get our heads around it to understand the scale and the consequences.”
All of Henner’s images come from publicly available satellite images. He enhances the photos by altering the colors ― those eerie greens aren’t actually quite so radiant ― but the physical details of the landscapes are untouched.
While Henner was able to access these satellite images easily and at no cost, regulations called “ag-gag” are being adopted in certain states to prohibit environmental activists and watchdogs from recording undercover videos, photos, and sound recordings at farms, thus allowing gross environmental waste and animal abuse to go unreported.
“The feedlots are a brilliant representation of how abstract our food industry has come,” Henner told Business Insider. “It’s an efficient system for extracting the maximum yield from animals. That’s the world we live in now. We want to extract the maximum yield from everything, no matter what business you are in.”
Henner’s abstract images, in which living animals are visualized as barely perceptible specks, are an appropriate match for the abstracted food industry. Gazing at their eerie beauty, it’s hard to digest that these very spaces are where millions of animals are stuffed and slaughtered to produce what’s on your dinner table.