The Pandemic Is Exposing the Rotten Core of Our Industrial Food System

The Pandemic Is Exposing the Rotten Core of Our Industrial Food System

While industrial farms have been thrown into chaos, local agriculture has proved to be a more resilient model.

Joseph Bullington

August 14, 2020

Published in
September 2020

The yel­low-brown com­post has been heaped into hills taller than the near­by bull­doz­ers. The piles don’t look like pigs, but that’s what they are. Pigs and woodchips.

It’s mid-May and thou­sands of hogs have been killed and tossed in a wood­chip­per on this farm field in Nobles Coun­ty, Min­neso­ta. They rep­re­sent but a frac­tion of the num­ber of ani­mals that have met such an end here in the third-high­est hog-pro­duc­ing state in the coun­try. The Min­neso­ta Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture said on May 6 that at least 10,000 hogs were being slaugh­tered and dis­card­ed every day, but no one knows the real num­ber. The state set up the Nobles Coun­ty com­post site, but it’s not required to track all the killings due to a tech­ni­cal­i­ty, says Michael Cru­san, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Min­neso­ta Board of Ani­mal Health. ​“There isn’t an ani­mal dis­ease issue,” he explains. ​“It’s just a depop­u­la­tion due to mar­ket conditions.”

“Mar­ket con­di­tions” does not mean every­one has enough to eat. In Min­neso­ta and across the coun­try, surg­ing need has over­whelmed food banks. Some super­mar­kets lim­it meat pur­chas­es to pre­vent shelves from becom­ing bare. In the Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune, one let­ter writer pleads for hunters to be allowed to butch­er the wast­ed hogs, to save at least some of the meat from the woodchipper.

“Mar­ket con­di­tions,” in this case, means meat pro­cess­ing plants, includ­ing the JBS pork plant in near­by Wor­thing­ton, have shut down because of Covid-19 out­breaks among work­ers. The Wor­thing­ton plant alone, which pre­vi­ous­ly processed 20,000 hogs a day, has been tied to more than 700 Covid-19 cas­es.

The assem­bly line of indus­tri­al food, how­ev­er, extends far beyond the pro­cess­ing plants. The clo­sures have left many indus­tri­al pig farm­ers, who raise and ship out hogs on a reg­i­ment­ed sched­ule, with nowhere to send their mar­ket-ready ani­mals. With the next batch of hogs ready to fill the cages behind them and no oth­er way to get the meat to hun­gry peo­ple, the farm­ers have lit­tle choice but to grind the ani­mals into compost.

The surging interest in local food has been a lifeline for many. And it just might help the country make a long-term shift toward a more sustainable, more resilient and more just food system.

Accord­ing to John Ikerd, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of agri­cul­tur­al and applied eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, this fail­ure is not a fluke of the pan­dem­ic but a weak­ness fun­da­men­tal to the indus­tri­al food sys­tem. By extend­ing the factory’s fix­a­tion on eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy to the farm, indus­tri­al­ism has cut flex­i­bil­i­ty and diver­si­ty out of agri­cul­ture. Ikerd says a fac­to­ry can’t slaugh­ter 20,000 hogs a day, every day, with­out an inflex­i­ble sched­ule of when hogs are bred, born, fat­tened and shipped. Just as it’s more effi­cient to have work­ers each make a sin­gle repet­i­tive cut on an assem­bly line than it is to have each butch­er a whole hog, it’s more effi­cient to have a farmer raise thou­sands of hogs in a con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tion (known as a CAFO) or only grow acres of corn than it is to raise a vari­ety of live­stock, chick­ens and veg­eta­bles. Despite some obvi­ous prob­lems, the indus­tri­al food sys­tem is a mar­vel of effi­cien­cy — until some­thing goes wrong.

Ikerd puts it this way: ​“We’ve got a more oper­a­tional­ly effi­cient sys­tem, but it’s a very frag­ile sys­tem.” Covid-19, he says, is one of many dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios that could bring it all crash­ing down.

Across the coun­try we’ve seen chick­ens killed en masse, milk dumped, fields of veg­eta­bles plowed under. At the same time, we’ve seen the emp­ty shelves, the cars lin­ing up out­side food banks. MORE