Wow, I am 5 chapters into The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it is a great read. I would like to point out that this author is NOT a vegetarian, and even admits that he will probably go back to eating feedlot meat once the memories start to fade. I think that makes this book even more interesting. I did not write this entry to try to convince everyone to become vegetarian, but just to do your part when it comes to supporting grass-fed cattle ranches as opposed to the large factory farms.
After Mr. Pollan addresses some seriously fascinating stories about corn (who knew?!), he goes on to the next part of the food chain: the feedlot cattle. About 60% of the corn produced in this country goes to feedlots, so this is the next logical step. Although cows are not naturally corn-eaters, feedlot cattle have been forced into this way of life.
Economically, it is nearly impossible for a family farm to compete with feedlots. A big part of the reason is because feedlots (and everyone, thanks to government subsidies) get corn for less than it costs the farmers to produce. Even if farmers wanted to feed cattle corn, it would cost them more to feed their own corn to cattle than it would to buy corn for them.
Pollan decides to buy a steer and follow its life through the cycle. He gives its history. Steer 534 (the one he bought) was the product of a $15 mail-order straw of semen and a mother cow named “9534” since she was the 34th cow born in 1995 at her ranch. None of her male offspring are around long enough to be named individually, so they are all called 534.
Born on March 13, 2001, in the birthing shed across the road, 534 and his mother were turned out on pasture just as soon as the eighty-pound calf stood up and began nursing. Within a few weeks the calf began supplementing his mother’s milk by nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses…
It sounds pretty good. I’d say that’s a pretty good mental picture.
Pollan then goes on to discuss the way that cows and pastures have a perfect relationship. The cows eat the grass, but also keep trees and bushes from growing and crowding out the grass. The manure fertilizes it, and as long as there is a proper amount of pasture rotation, life is good. Cows are made just for grass
…cows …have evolved the special ability to convert grass-which single-stomached creatures like us can’t digest– into high-quality protein. They can do this because they possess what is surely the most highly evolved digestive organ in nature: the rumen. About the size of a medicine ball, the organ is essentially a forty-five gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria dines on grass.
Its perfect and it works for the cow, the grass, and even the bacteria 🙂 The whole chain is solar-powered and transforms sunlight into protein. You really can’t beat that.
So then why is it that steer number 534 hasn’t tasted a blade of prairie grass since last October? Speed, in a word, or, in the industry’s preferred term, “efficiency.” Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth. “In my grandfather’s time, cows were four or five years old at slaughter,” Rich explained. “In the fifties, when my father was ranching, it was two or three years old. Now we get there at fourteen to sixteen months.” Fast food, indeed. What gets a steer from 80 to 1,100 pounds in fourteen months are tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs.
Fourteen months. That is crazy. That is so young. It is this age difference that has enabled Americans to go from eating beef as a luxury item to eating it as everyday fare.
In October, two weeks before I made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother. Weaning is perhaps the most traumatic time on a ranch for animals and ranchers alike; cows separated from their calves will mope and bellow for days, and the calves, stressed by the changes in circumstance and diet, are prone to getting sick.
I think every nursing mother can cringe at this. Yes, they are “only” animals, but obviously they aren’t bellowing and moaning just out of instinct. They are truly upset. Even their immune systems respond to this stress.
So next the calves go into a “backgrounding” pen, where they are, for the first time in their lives, confined to a pen, “bunk broken”–taught to eat from a trough–and where they learn to eat a new and unnatural diet: corn.
Pollan goes on to describe the sight and smell of a feedlot. Let’s just say it smells like poop and operates much like a big city in the dark ages. You can always read the book for more details 😉 I don’t want to give away all of the good stuff, haha. Anyways, so back to the corn…
We’ve come to think of “corn-fed” as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you’re referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. Its chief advantage is that cows fed corn… get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.
Seriously, if you eat meat, then that should be enough to convince you to buy grass-fed cattle, even if you don’t care about their living conditions or quality of life.
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market. Of course, it was the same industrial logic–protein is protein–that made feeding rendered cow parts back to cows seem like a sensible thing to do, until scientists figured out that this practice was spreading bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Rendered bovine meat and bonemeal represented the cheapest, most convenient way of satisfying a cow’s protein requirement (never mind these animals were herbivores by evolution) and so appeared on the daily menus… until the FDA banned the practice in 1997.
So you might think that now cows aren’t fed cows, but you’d be wrong.
The FDA ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants makes an exception for blood products and fat; my steer will probably dine on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse he’s heading to in June. (“Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged, when I raised an eyebrow.) …The rules still permit feedlots to feed nonruminant animal protein to ruminants. Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal. Some public health experts worry that since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cows used to eat is now being feed to chickens, pigs, and fish, infetious prions could fine their way back into cattle when they’re fed the protein of animals that have been eating them.
Compared to all the other things we feed cattle these days, corn seems positively wholesome. And yet it too violates the biological …logic of bovine digestion. …Bloat is perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn. The fermentation in the rumen produces copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap the gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the animal suffocates.
A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen cow is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant, and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases— pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio.
Mmm, makes me hungry 😛
Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be about as much as their systems can tolerate. “I don’t know how long you could feed them this ration before you’d see problems,” Dr. Metzin said; another vet told me the diet would eventually “blow out their livers” and kill them. Over time the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal’s bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver’s function. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers; Dr. Mel told me that in some pens the figure runs as high as 70 percent.
And yet since corn is so cheap, it is used. We demand cheap meat, and by buying cheap meat, we encourage this treatment of animals.
In order to keep the animals alive, they are given antibiotics, and a lot of them. These antibiotics are now becoming ineffective in humans and animals as the bacteria become more resistant to them. That means we have to take more powerful antibiotics, all because animals must be given them in order to boost their immune systems which are only weakened because we insist on feeding them corn.
So 534 was not at the feedlot and not looking his best. His eyes were bloodshot from the dust of the feces that lines the pens. 534 slept on manure that is full of bacteria.
The bacteria… can find their way from the manure on the ground into his hide and from their into our hamburgers… The speed at which these animals will be slaughtered and processed–four hundred an hour at the plant where 534 will go–means that sooner or later some of the manure caked on these hides gets into the meat we eat. One of the bacteria that almost certainly resides in the manure I’m standing in is particularly lethal to humans. E. Coli 0157:H7 is a relatively new strain of the common intestinal bacteria (no one had seen it before 1980) that thrives in feedlot cattle, 40% of which carry it in their gut. Ingesting as few as ten of these microbes can cause a fatal infection; they produce a toxin that destroys human kidneys.
Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the strong acids in our stomachs, since they evolved to live in the neutral pH, environment of the rumen. But the rumen of corn-fed feedlot steer is nearly as acidic as our own, and in this new, man-made environment new acid-resistant strains of E. Coli, of which 0157:H7 is one, have evolved… The problem with these bugs is that they can shake off the acid bath in our stomachs–and then go on to kill us. By acidifying the rumen with corn we’ve broken down one of our food chain’s most important barriers to infection. Yet another solution turned into a problem.
This is so scary. This is why man should not be interfering with God-made systems. We are not here to recreate systems, we are here to take care of the earth. I know I sound like a total hippie, but c’mon, look at the name of my domain.
…Petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persion Gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot. Steer 534 started his life part of a food chain that derived all of its energy from the sun, which nourished the grasses that nourished him and his mother. When 534 moved from ranch to feedlot, from grass to corn, he joined an industrial food chain powered by fossil fuel–and therefore defended by the US military, another never-counted cost of cheap food. (One fifth of America’s petroleum consumption goes to producing and transporting our food.)
So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is a ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine. This one, however, is able to suffer.
It is estimated that EACH COW uses 1 barrel of oil to be sent to market as beef. This oil is in the form of petroleum to fertilize the corn as well as the oil to transport and convert his food from corn into the flakes that they eat, along with the other manufactured products put in his food. That is scary.
I know this is a looooooooong post, and I should probably split it up, but there was just SO much to talk about in this chapter. I hope it makes you think twice, I know I am.
Amazing stuff, Amanda. Now I’ve gotta go find a copy of that book! 🙂
Good job on summarizing this part of Pollan’s book. I wish every one in America would read it. Then we small family farmers might have a chance. If your readers are looking for grass-fed alternatives, try our website (if you are on the west side of the country) for grass fed beef: http://www.alderspring.com, or try the eat wild site to find a producer near you: http://www.eatwild.com.
Heatherlee Lewis says
1 barrel of oil…..
This is one of things that I am so interested in about US food production. Why in the world does it make any sense that we pay to increase the production of one food source and then ruin the life of another family farm.
It seems like the government is saying that they want to help the family farm with subsidies, but isn’t the vegetable farmer just as important?
I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks for letting me know about something I didn’t have on my list.
Great job about writing in regard E. Coli 0157:H7 .
Hey Amanda! So glad you are reading this book… I’m on the last “meal” now. This book was just fascinating to me, and I think everyone should read it. 🙂 I’m going to reserve further comments until Rebecca finishes my new blog and I’ll post about it there. 🙂