By Carlie Ostrom
It’s rare to walk into an urban restaurant or market without being bombarded by signs touting cage-free eggs, pasture-raised beef, or GMO-free wheat. I didn’t always run into “foodie” culture, however. I grew up in Wisconsin, where I spent my summers showing cattle and giving tours of my family’s dairy farms.
Since my departure from home for college two years ago, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. I must admit, it’s still shocking to see how adamant my new urban peers are about food standards considering their lack of connection to the agricultural world. People genuinely believe that their food is better for them and better for the world if its production methods are old-fashioned. I’m going to deconstruct this view: If we’re looking at it from a consequentialist standpoint, modern farming is actually better for everyone — farmers, consumers, animals and the Earth.
In the current socio-political environment, a lot of consumer conversation essentially shames farming and is not inclusive of the viewpoints from the people who actually do the farming. My purpose in this is not to force my pro-modern farming opinion onto anyone, rather to encourage an open discussion on this complex and sensitive issue. It’s important that consumer decisions are based on fact, not emotion or persuasive marketing.
The Red Barn View
Twenty-First Century American consumers are perhaps the most consequence-minded the world has ever seen. Since getting enough food on the table is no longer the issue it was 60 or 70 years ago, topics such as the environment, animal rights, and sustainability are now an added component that consumers can afford to care about when it comes to their meals. In stark contrast, the number of farmers in the U.S. is down from 6.2 million in 1950 to 2.2 million today. It’s a fact that most people are now three or four generations removed from being directly involved in farming and can only rely on the media for information about their food. Many successful campaigns have focused attention on the recent notion of what I’ll call “red barn ideals,” and because those in cities lack a tangible connection to working farmers or even rural settings, they are easily inculcated.
Some of the public’s assumed ideals include:
• Organic crops are better. The idea of feeding animals with pesticide-treated plants seems toxic for animals and thus the people that eat meat.
• Food should come from family farms. There’s a pretty picture often used that illustrates the kind of farm my grandfather started in 1958. The plot has a red barn, a few silos, about 30 cows grazing in the pasture, chickens roaming about, and a little red tractor underneath the shed. It makes agriculture seem like a personal, heartfelt tradition.
• Animals are better off if left grazing outdoors. People have seen documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” and commercials by PETA that show animals looking cramped inside enclosed barns. Consumers think that animals would be happier and healthier if they were left to roam freely.
• GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are also to be avoided. The idea of tampering with the genes of plants and animals seems risky and unnatural.
• Antibiotics and growth hormones negatively affect the health of animals. Some public health advocates find it inhumane and also risky to consume meat of treated animals.
The points above are some of the most widely-held ideals that consumers want from their producers and I think all of these are meritable arguments. In fact, if I didn’t grow up surrounded by the agriculture, I may hold a few of these same concerns. However, the ideals of the public are actually unfounded considering the advancements made by modern farmers.
The Modern Farming View
If we look at agriculture from a purely scientific outlook, however, reverting practices back to red barn ideals is neither the ethical nor the logical thing to do. Farmers have expanded their animal operations to be efficient systems that use economies of scale. To be clear, this kind of large-scale farm is known to the public as a “factory farm” and known to the government as a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation). Though generally thought of negatively by the media and the masses, I argue that large-scale farming is not only more efficient, but also safer, better for the animals, better for the environment, and more cognizant of booming world population.
America’s upper-middle class loves technology. Self-driving cars, the iPhone, Google Maps, and virtual reality are a few recent favorites. But when it comes to farming, many consumers seem to want farmers to ignore the technological advancements of the last 60 years. How is this industry any different from tech, banking, architecture, or manufacturing? The red barn ideal of farming prefers small homesteads that can’t compare to the efficiency of larger farms simply because they can’t afford the specialization, precision, and accuracy that comes with state-of-the-art agriculture farming.
To illustrate this, I’ll compare milking a cow in a red barn farm and milking a cow in a “factory farm.” In the red barn, a farmer may have to herd the cow to get her situated to milk by him/herself. He then carries the milking machine to her, preps her udder, and milks her. In the large-scale dairy farm, as many as 100 cows move into a holding pen at once where they wait a few minutes to enter what’s called a rotary parlor — think of a carousel that holds 80 cows at once. Each cow walks onto the carousel individually and is carried around on a platform. As she makes her way, the cow reaches the farm workers who will clean her udder, attach the milker and perform a post-milking cleanse. After seven minutes, she’s done milking and on her way back to her pen. Every part is carefully calculated, monitored, and documented to make the cow-milking process proceed as smoothly as possible. The red barn version of milking a cow sounds picturesque, but is less productive, less safe and less sanitary.
The previous example shows inefficiencies in milking a cow without even addressing the infinite other challenges faced on smaller farms, such as bedding, manure removal, feeding, breeding, and treating sick animals. Additionally, large-scale farms have the capital resources to employ specialists in agronomy, veterinary medicine, nutrition, and operational efficiency. Alternatively, a farm run by a few people is likely competent in each of these aspects, but not excellent in any of them.
For the Environmentalists
The environmentally conscious are wary of modern farming because they believe that raising animals in this way is too hard on the ecosystem due to its scale and use of inorganic methods.
People believe CAFOs come with too much manure leaking into their local streams and drinking water. I’ll admit that this is a risk of large farms. However, this ongoing challenge is assessed and regulated heavily by each state’s respective natural resources agency — it takes months to years to get permits for building CAFOs and it would cost millions in fines for manure runoff violations. Large farms are required to take extreme precautionary measures that small farms don’t even have to consider.
Skeptics also think that building a large-scale animal farm drains surrounding water reservoirs because of how much animals need to drink every day. While it’s true that having so many animals concentrated in one area can be straining to water supplies, if we consider this in a broader context, large farms are so efficient with their water that, per head, the farms use far less water than red barn farms. Again, it is a lengthy permitting process to even build CAFOs, so the chance of getting a build permit where the water supply couldn’t support the farm is improbable.
Finally, if we were to make sure that all animals ate organic crops (not grown with pesticides aproved for organic food) how will we account for the extra land needed considering 19 percent of organic crops die from insect infestation? Would we destroy more marshes and rainforests to make room for more farmland? This contradicts environmentalists’ goals, too. Remember that large, modern farming tactics are so regulated that the possibility of the chemicals running off is low and its the modern farmers are innovating with new alternatives to reduce erosion and runoff.
Misplaced Concerns About Modification
Some of the biggest apprehensions that consumers have about non-organic, genetically modified, or antibiotic-treated meat is they think it will have negative effects on their health. Scientific journals have written that these have “no discernible effect in humans and is of little concern to your health.”
Some might think that not enough research has been done to prove the good in using treated or altered products, but on that same note, no cases have been found to support this view. What’s for the greater good? Treat a sick animal with antibiotics or let it remain sick? Certainly killing or letting the sick animals die just because people prefer not to treat them isn’t cost effective or morally correct.
In terms of animals that have only been fed organic crops, there exists a misconception as well. The animals don’t actually benefit from either organic or inorganic food, so the only thing accomplished by feeding them organic crops is damage to the global carbon footprint by wasting land and making the price of meat, dairy products, and eggs increase.
What Animals Actually Prefer
Contrary to popular belief, farmers do want their animals to be as comfortable as possible because in the end, the animals will grow healthier, produce more milk, or give more eggs if they’re happy. For this reason, the notion of grass-fed and pasture-roaming livestock as the best form of treatment is old-school. Factory farms are perhaps more concerned with animal comfort. Think about it: left outside, a pig, for example, is left to endure whatever climate conditions are thrown at it be it 95 degrees or -10 degrees and flurrying snow. If it rains, the pig will just have to slop around in the sloshy mud. If a predator comes to the pasture, then the pig is left to be attacked. Of course, these are extreme cases, but by putting animals in controlled environments where they’re fed the nutritional portions they need, given space to lie comfortably or walk, a controlled thermostat, and a routine to expect, the stress put on the animals is minimized.
A Wealthy Man’s Wish
Perhaps the biggest argument against enacting red barn farming methods is that only the wealthy can afford the food that comes from them. The low-income, single mother of three kids can’t afford to care if eggs are from free-range chickens because she’s just trying to get any food on the table at all. As of 2015, 13.5 percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty and 45 percent has a household income lower than $50,000. While this is a considerable portion of America, look at global statistics and it’s even more eye-opening. Along with the number of farms in the US shrinking by a third in the last 65 years, world population has gone from about 2.5 billion to 7.3 billion. It’s simple math. Large-scale farming must happen if we are to feed a growing population.
If we were to go back to organic, GMO-free, small farms, it’s true that it might make the middle class and above more “comfortable” with the agriculture industry. But what about the rest of the population? It seems wrong to take what is perceived as the “high road” in agriculture if it means that millions are left unable to afford food because they were produced in an archaic manner. With the demand for high quality going up substantially with this world population increase, it would be socially irresponsible to continue to produce in a traditional way.
Is Ethical Consumerism Right?
Ethics are normative statements that tell what “you ought to do.” In the context of food and agriculture, who is the “you”? It’s apparent that consumers have taken the “you” to be themselves and thus have participated in ethical consumerism in the food industry. But now that some of the misconceptions in agriculture have been outlined, we can begin to see how consumer ethical concerns, while well-intentioned, can be misplaced. If everyone in the world expected their food to be pasture grazed, organic, or antibiotic-free, agriculture would fall short in providing for billions of people. Since they are removed from what farmers actually do and know, ethical consumerism seems to be overly simplistic and getting the balance of considerations wrong.
Alternatively, the question of ethics ultimately should be placed in the farmers’ hands and those well-educated on the subject. The onus is upon them for pursuing innovations and maintaining sustainable, morally conscious practices. While it’s important that consumers take into consideration how agriculture corporations do what they do, it’s perhaps more important that they also recognize how little they themselves know about the process.
Going forward, I urge you to visit farms instead of relying on foodie media hype and consider how farming may affect the world beyond your own dinner table.
Ostrom is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. This column originally appeared on Medium.com.