The dark side of animal agriculture

Live Healthy Anywhere, on the road and on the go.

A tale of the not-so-happy cow. Ill-effects from animal agriculture. 

This topic is incredibly important and involved, with several distinct yet related vicious cycles – how to best communicate it all in a clear and non-confusing way? The burden of responsibility seems heavy, as it impacts our own wellbeing and that of our animals, our land, and ultimately – our planet.

A graphic seems prudent to visualize the components involved in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFO), the technical term for commercial feeding operations that confine over 1k pounds of animals for at least 45 days (usually longer) across a year. 

1) Industrial agriculture produces corn and soy products, combined with drugs and other non-disclosed ingredients to form feed for cows in confinement. Industrial agriculture itself presents human health, water and air contamination concerns. 2) Prophylactic drugs are required to help cows adapt to the non-natural diet and to help prevent the spread of pathogens and disease in tight quarters. Resistant-bacteria result and can be passed to humans. 3) Manure is channeled into man-made lagoons or lakes which present community health risks through airborne or water pollution. 4) Human and planetary health concerns include contaminated foods and waterways, and increased antibiotic resistance.
It all starts with the soil – or lack thereof. Commercial feedlot animals don’t have much contact with the soil after weaning. (Ironic for a ruminant animal, made to roam and forage on grass.) They live most their lives in enclosures amongst other animals, feed dust, and manure — lots of manure. This creates hygiene concerns and enables disease and pathogens to readily spread. So exactly how is plague and pestilence curtailed in such a place? With drugs, of course!
 
Human antibiotics are approved for use in animals and their food and water, so long as a resident Veterinarian approves it. And Veterinarian drugs, i.e. drugs approved only for animal use, are similarly administered at-will. The FDA handed over the reins, so if a feedlot Veterinarian approves it, game on. (1)
 
Problem: these drugs end up in animal “tissue residue”, meaning the drugs are ultimately passed into the final food products that humans ingest, causing health concerns(2).  
 
And not only the drugs are getting into humans.
 
Routinely feeding animals antibiotics and antimicrobials causes resistant organisms to form, and these organisms can be passed on to humans who ingest food made from the animal (e.g. meat, milk, eggs) or come into contact with the animal itself. The World Health Organization has pronounced antibiotic resistance to be “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”(3) 
 
Back to the soil.
 
Soil does come into play with feedlot animals, specifically upstream, in how the aforementioned (often drug-laden) animal feed is produced. Corn is the biggest commodity crop in the US, and a vast majority is used to make cheap animal feed. The corn is commonly genetically modified and sprayed with all the typical chemical “‘ides”: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides.
 
Now we still don’t know all the ingredients of many of these pesticides and herbicides (etc), as “inert” ingredients – AKA “Other” ingredients – are allowed to go unnamed, and there’s simply too many to keep up with. Even the EPA has admitted: “The ‘inert’ ingredients in some products may be more toxic or pose greater risks than the active ingredient.”(4)
 
And when in close proximity to such industrial agriculture, farmworkers, community citizens, groundwater and waterways experience increased health risk and concerns.
 
These chemical sprays are to the soil as antibiotics are to our gut. The good gets wiped out with the bad. What’s more, pests and weeds evolve to become resistant to the chemicals, which creates a vicious cycle: requiring even more spraying and developing even more intense, new chemicals to keep these evolving pests at bay. Then you have genetically modified (GM) crops that are bred to withstand the intense spraying. The super-pests from the over-dependence on industrial agriculture chemical spraying are akin to the super-bacteria resulting from the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
 
The result is a zero-sum game – resulting in a depleted, scorched earth (literally). 
 
And don’t forget the realities of monocropping (previously discussed here). Monocropping is used with commodity crops, yielding seriously unhealthy soil. But never fear, there are fast-nitrogen-fixing fertilizers for that! And yes, it’s the very fertilizer that ends up in our waterways, with other pollutants and waste contaminants, together causing ecological disasters such as the algal blooms and the “dead zones” now recurring in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other locations worldwide. Dead zones kill off aquatic life and can become hazardous to humans. 
 
Did you forget we’re talking about cows here? (I warned you this is quite deep and nuanced!) 
 
So the feedlot cows are eating a mixture of chemically sprayed corn plus a smorgasbord of other ingredients (antibiotics, drugs, “other” ingredients, etc). But that’s not exactly what a cow’s supposed to eat. 
 
Corn was selected to take advantage of the U.S. surplus production and for its ability to nicely fatten cows and promote marbling – a quality and taste Americans have grown to prefer. 
 
A near majority of corn is used for animal feed. But as we discovered, corn’s not all that’s in the feed, which is a bit of a black box. In addition to the human antibiotics and animal drugs, animal feed can also contain soy and reportedly other obscure ingredients like poultry litter (yes, chicken poop and carcasses), industrial food waste products, more pesticides residue(5), and other chemicals (again, “inert” or “other” ingredients).
 
“There are a lot of blind spots in animal agriculture,” says Environmental Scientist and Chief Science Adviser at GRACE Communications Foundation, Urvashi Rangan (former director at Consumer Reports)  “You get the idea that it’s sort of a free-for-all out there in terms of drugs that can be mixed into animal feed… and yet the ramifications on public health are really significant, and that isn’t a sustainable system for us”.(6)
 
Since the feed is not natural for the cows, they’d get seriously sick if it weren’t for antibiotics and other drugs that help them withstand a wide variety of gastro-distress impacting multiple organs (intestines, liver, etc). Antibiotics are proactively administered on a routine basis to protect against feed and confinement illnesses.(7) Additionally, Veterinarians make regular rounds at feedlots looking to address other issues. 
 
Animal waste is another key issue with all feedlot animals – not just cows. Since the animals are not grazing around and naturally fertilizing the land, the manure ends up pooled into man-made lagoons and lakes, where it sometimes goes through treatment processes. Mostly, it releases copious contaminants and greenhouse gases into the air. And keep your fingers crossed there’s no heavy wind, rain, or flooding! Any of these might cause community air or water contamination, as could any structural faults that allow contaminants to seep into groundwater. The manure is often applied to agricultural fields as a way to disperse, but this perpetuates health concerns, by introducing contaminants into groundwater.(8)
 
All of these inputs and effects are from a common food Americans love to eat – (feedlot) beef. You may have heard – “you’re not just what you eat, you’re what you eat eats”. I’d refine this to say: It’s not just what you eat – it’s the food chain and all the inputs and downstream effects along the way. If you’re aware that you’re eating a drug-injected, stressed-out, depressed animal that’s been fed an unnatural chemical-laden feed, what does this say about you, your principles, and what you allow into your body? (Awareness, of course, is the first step. And we all have the right to know. )
 
And while we’ve focused on the cow, bear in mind this applies to both dairy and beef cows, in addition to chickens, turkey, pigs, sheep, and lambs. 
 
Some might think Organic is the answer. Not necessarily. 
 
Organic technically doesn’t get you away from confinement and the resulting issues. But it does negate synthetic-chemical-laden feed and it does prohibit prophylactic drug use. “Organic” meat indicates that the animal is fed only “Organic” feed, I.E. organic corn and soy plus other allowed inputs. An antibiotic would only be used in response to a verified illness. So “Organic” is one small step in the right direction. 
 
Ideally, you want organic and exclusively pasture-raised cows. This means grass-fed and grass-finished. Sometimes grass-fed cows are “grain-finished” at the feedlots for upwards of 180 days or more. Buy meat, milk, and butter from a reputable local butcher, farmer, or dairy producer – ideally you could talk to the people who are handling the products. Exclusively-pastured cows do not create manure management crises, as their waste is used as compost and natural fertilizer for the land on which they roam. 
 
BONUS: Pasture-raised products come with added human health benefits, including higher levels of the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Vitamins A & E, plus less of the pro-inflammatory Omega-6 linoleic acid. Healthy soils = Healthy plants = Healthy cows = Healthy Humans. A much more virtuous cycle! 
 
Since “pastured” and “grass-fed” are not exactly regulated terms, it is incumbent on us to ask where our food comes from and how it is raised. A “Regenerative Organic” label is in the works and intended to represent a truer form of healthy, holistic, organic virtuosity for the soil, animals, and humans. Even so, we’ve seen time and again that big business and efficiencies tend to corrupt – so we must remain aware and engaged. 

 

What you can do: 

Avoid ordering that “USDA steak” on the menu. Vote with your fork in favor of a more sustainable, delicious, and just world for all. Prioritize organic, local produce and whole grains – and if you eat meat or animal products, be sure to verify the source. At Healthy Anywhere, we specifically analyze restaurant sourcing – animal products included – to identify sustainable stars. 
 
Recent guidance has proposed Americans cut beef consumption in half. We recommend that Americans cut 100% of all feedlot beef and instead consume minimal to modest amounts of organic, grass-finished beef that is sustainably raised and humanely handled, as part of a diet that is majorly plant-based. Other animal products should similarly be verified from sustainable sources. BTW: We don’t necessarily recommend the lab-and-cell-based / fake meat products hitting the market in droves. More to come on that… 
 
Lesson Learned: It’s not just what you eat – it’s the food chain and all the inputs and downstream effects along the way. 

REFERENCES

  1. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “Guidelines for Veterinary Prescription Drugs”. Retrieved at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Guidelines-for-Veterinary-Prescription-Drugs.aspx
  2. Gupta, PK.Illustrated Toxicology. (April, 2018) Academic Press. Chapter 15.
  3. World Health Organization (WHO). (Feb, 2018) “Antibiotic Resistance” Fact Sheet. Retrieved at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance
  4. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “PRN 97-6: Use of Term ‘Inert’ in the Label Ingredients Statement.” Retrieved At: https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/prn-97-6-use-term-inert-label-ingredients-statement
  5. Bhaskara Reddy. M, Vijaya & Reddy, Yeddula. (2015). PESTICIDE RESIDUES IN ANIMAL FEED AND EFFECTS ON ANIMALS AND ITS PRODUCTS WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO ENDOSULFAN. International Journal of Research in Ayurveda & Pharmacy. 6. 371-374. 10.7897/2277-4343.06372.
  6.  The Edible School Yard Project. (Jan 30, 2019). “Understanding our FoodPrint and The Power of Transparency, with Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D.” Retrieved at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLbVQ7bRvGk
  7. FoodPrint. “FoodPrint Issue: Antibiotic use in our food system”. Retrieved at: https://foodprint.org/issues/antibiotics-in-our-food-system/
  8. USGS. (1999) “Effects of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) on
    Hydrologic Resources and the Environment”, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs” by Mary G. Henry. Retrieved at: https://water.usgs.gov/owq/AFO/proceedings/afo/html/henry.html 

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