I am in wholehearted agreement with the motivation behind the New York Times editorial of a few days ago, “Farms and Antibiotics,” and with the legislation it promotes, which aims to drastically reduce the amount of antibiotics used in raising meat. The figures in this editorial are staggering. There are so many good reasons to pass this legislation: the overuse of antibiotics leads to super-resistant bugs that can affect human and animal health; the animals are given antibiotics not because they are sick, but to prevent them from getting sick, which surely would happen because of the crowded and confined conditions in which they are raised, and because of the unnatural diet they are fed to fatten them up faster than their bodies can handle; antibiotics in farm run-off (i.e. manure) leach into ground- and open water.
But the problem will not be easy to solve. It would be simplisitic to think that it’s just a bunch of bad-boy capitalist farmers injecting their animals with too many drugs in the name of profit. Those farmers are stoking, yes, but are also feeding an insatiable appetite for meat. The change won’t come with legislation alone but with massive shifts in the American (and first world in general) diet–away from cheap meat–and toward more easy access to healthy, whole foods. Legislation to limit antibiotic use on factory farms will need to be accompanied by some consciousness raising about the unsustainable scale of the meat industries, and with many more legislative actions. (Michael Pollan had some great suggestions for what these might be, in his pre-election open letter, “Farmer In Chief.”)
The road blocks to changing the first world diet might better be described as an intricate and incredibly strong mesh, made up of socioeconomic inequalities, socioeconomic history, and the history of the food industry and of the first world diet. A century and a half ago, fresh beef was a specialty food of the wealthy. That all changed with the invention of refrigeration in the late nineteenth-century. First came the icebox in upper-class homes; then came ice-cooled warehouses, both of which were unreliable but which led to greater changes . Then came compressed-air, and electric refrigeration–in homes, in warehouses, on trains, in steamers. The growth of the refrigeration industry, which was directly related to that of beef, completely changed the culture of meat consumption. Large-scale cattle farms, slaughter-houses, and warehouses, and the increasing demand they were set up to meet, displaced small-scale businesses of all sorts, and introduced the factory-farming of cattle. This was when grain-fed beef and the first CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) were implemented. As supply increased, demand increased, and prices fell. And now here we are, habituated to a diet of cheap, abundant beef that we are finally recognizing to be unsustainable. (A compelling and carefully researched description of this history can be found in the new book by Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History.)
The reduction of antibiotic use in cattle will have to go along with a reduction in beef consumption, but because of the socioeconomic realities of beef consumption, this won’t change easily. We all know that highly processed, “fast food” is cheaper and easier for many to get than fresh, whole foods. This socioeconomic disparity will have to be addressed as well. (Salmon and shrimp are fast becoming the new beef: the prices are dropping and the antibiotic use is going up. The Times had a chilling article the other day about antibiotic use by salmon farms in South America.)
If you have the means, switching to grass fed beef is a good idea, but it will only help to keep beef production sustainable if the beef is local and eaten infrequently. Speaking of which… it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been to Cloudland Farm….