Journalists and foodies keep decrying industrialized farming and meat production. But what to do? You can’t change the system by shopping at a farmer’s market.
Ricardo Ceppi/ Corbis Images
Nov. 21, 2014 5:54 p.m. ET
By now, most people who care about where our food comes from are aware of the heavy toll that industrialized agriculture and animal husbandry have taken on our health, our farming communities and our environment. In the decades since World War II, family farms raising crops and animals springing from regional genetic pools have been replaced with the mechanized mono-cropping of genetically modified foods dependent on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Animals are raised in confinement pens and sustained by antibiotics and growth hormones.
By Ted Genoways
Harper, 305 pages, $26.99
Besides being an ethically wobbly endeavor, factory farming—because that’s what it is—has led to a flavor bankruptcy that has made entire generations forget what pork tenderloin tastes like, or corn on the cob, or chicken fat, or tomatoes, or strawberries. The locavore movement, Slow Food, the proliferation of farmer’s markets and the Farm to Table trend in restaurants are all championed by people who would like to change that model. But we aren’t going to change our food system by buying tomatoes at the farmer’s market (though you should if you want tastier produce). Industrial farming is entrenched, both economically and politically, and enjoys the succor of powerful allies in government and associated industries. So what to do?
By Nicolette Hahn Niman
C helsea Green, 274 pages, $19.95
One option is outrage. It’s an emotion that drives some food books to expose the malfeasance of industrialized food systems and, in so doing, to force the reader to consider the effects of these systems. Muckraking journalism of this sort includes the deft “The Meat Racket” (2014), Christopher Leonard ’s exposé of the economics of the chicken industry, particularly Tyson Foods, which hatched a kind of indentured farming; “Salt Sugar Fat” (2013) by Michael Moss, which explores the addictive nature of processed foods and the distortion of the American diet to suit financial goals; and “Fast Food Nation” (2001), Eric Schlosser ’s sharp analysis of the industrialization behind American fast food.
At the other end of the conversation are books that are solution-oriented, often written by people with a stake in the food business. These are more optimistic in their outlook, like “The Third Plate” (2014) by Dan Barber, which depicts alternative farming practices and lays out a dietary approach that will support them; Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” (2008), a manifesto for eating that rejects processed foods; and books by writers of a more philosophical bent, such as Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.
Most books range somewhere in the middle, though, like “Four Fish” (2010) by Paul Greenberg, which examines our declining wild fisheries and, at the same time, extols the great potential of farmed fish. Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” (2002) asserts that the food industry dictates the way we eat through its dominance of nutrition information, and she provides strategies for countering its influence.
“The Chain,” by Ted Genoways, is a book of the muckraking variety, taking as its subject the Hormel Foods Corp., which had $8.2 billion in revenue in 2012 and owns a variety of brands: prepared meats like Little Sizzlers pork sausage, canned foods like Dinty Moore Stew and Spam, diversified pantry products like protein drinks and peanut butter, and a range of prepared foods. But Hormel was founded on pork, and pork is the lens through which Mr. Genoways examines the company’s practices all along the supply chain.
In 1891, when George A. Hormel & Co was founded in Austin, Minn., about three animals a day were slaughtered. George, and later his son Jay, led the company with astute opportunism, invention (among other products, they created Canadian bacon) and “fifty years of labor peace that both sides lionized,” in Mr. Genoways’s words—until 1954, when the company came under leadership from outside the Hormel family. By 1975, the author relates, labor contracts had been gutted and slaughter-line speeds increased. In 2014, a single plant processed 1,300 pigs an hour.
With precision and focus, Mr. Genoways examines the consequences of the sped-up line, starting with “the confinement facilities where high-density hog farming increasingly threatens environmental quality and animal welfare” and extending to the butcher counter, “where the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply have been jeopardized.” Mr. Genoways looks at the decline of ethical animal husbandry, the environmental degradation caused by intensive feed and hog farming and the human toll paid by the wanton use of antibiotics. (One effect: The two million Americans per year who become ill due to antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the CDC.)
The sped-up line was made possible, Mr. Genoways explains, when Hormel lobbied for and engaged in microbial testing of carcasses (versus the slower manual inspection required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906). This allowed for the increased automation of meat processing, which reduced the need for skilled (and more costly) labor. Attempts to lower wages led to strikes, prompting the splitting off of some meatpacking to affiliates, which offered even lower wages. The speed of the line, Mr. Genoways claims, compromised the health and safety of the workers, often immigrants who were, he says, denied health insurance when determined to be illegal. All this for a cheap can of spam.
“The Chain” closes on a disappointing note. I tore through the book, totally engrossed in the Hormel culture, and was surprised when Mr. Genoways ended with a kind of resignation: “More than nineteen thousand hogs were processed at [Hormel affiliate] QPP that day,” he writes. “It was a day like any other.” This succinct book reads like a very long magazine article. There is no final rallying cry, no urge to action. That’s because “The Chain” seeks to reveal, not resolve; to instigate, not lead.
Mr. Genoways, a contributor to Mother Jones and On Earth magazines (as well as the author of books of poetry, biography and history), makes the case for a reassertion of regulation. If the folks at the USDA, the EPA and other regulatory bodies don’t listen up, consumers who purchase pork products should certainly take heed. Of course, what matters most to a company like Hormel isn’t regulation—not if all the players in its industry have to toe the same line—but public relations. So maybe the target audience for Mr. Genoways’s book is Hormel itself and those who invest in the company.
Not all meat producers are irresponsible. On the contrary, in 1969, Bill Niman founded Niman Ranch, a Bay Area ranch, meat processor and distributor of natural beef, lamb and pork. It became a national brand based on careful animal husbandry and environmental sustainability. Mr. Niman broke with the company in 2007 over its new owners’ implementation of animal protocols that ran counter to his philosophy. In 2009, Mr. Niman’s wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian and environmental lawyer, published a book called “Righteous Porkchop,” a critique of industrial meat production. Now, in “Defending Beef,” she champions beef raised “the Niman way.”
In the first two thirds of the book, Ms. Niman sets out to prove that cattle are good for people and the environment. She contends that animals grazed on grass support healthy grasslands and grassland biodiversity, sequestering water and carbon that would otherwise be stripped from the soil by the production of feed crops; that beef and saturated fat are not responsible for chronic disease in America (sugar and processed foods are); and, more anecdotally, that cattle ranching produces good citizens and healthy children.
The final section offers a critique of the industry and a set of remedies that ranchers can follow, like “Stop feeding drugs and other junk” and “Stop long-distance transport,” all eminently sensible. Using a potent mix of scientific data and neoteric theories about health and environment, Ms. Niman makes a convincing case that grass-fed cattle should be a part of a sustainable food culture. If I were not already a consumer of grass-fed beef (I buy it frozen), I would be upon reading this book.
Ms. Niman’s lawyerly approach, though, is a double-edged sword, and she sometimes pushes reality too far into her own corner, with exaggerations about the vitamin D content in whole milk (there’s very little; most is supplemented) and dubious science, like the evolutionary imperative of beef-eating. While her advocacy is earnest, it’s also personal.
The problems with beef today “are problems of land management, water resources, pollution, animal welfare, and food safety,” Ms. Niman writes. She honors the cattleman culture, hoping the industry will self-correct, and to that end she shares the techniques that her husband developed to produce great-tasting grass-fed beef. Some of the author’s observations touch on larger topics, like the gross amount of food waste in this country (a whopping 50% of all food produced) and how our system of food subsidies “leads us to eat an abundance of unhealthy foods.” These problems actually suggest pathways by which you and I might drive change, but they are not explored here. That may be because “Defending Beef” is true to its title: It seeks to persuade, not inflame.
Books on the state of our food systems ultimately try to alter the reader’s behavior, always through exposure to the facts, often through persuasion or example, and sometimes by inspiration and instruction. Maybe one book will yet emerge, like Upton Sinclair ’s “The Jungle” or Rachel Carson ’s “Silent Spring,” to jolt the country into action. In the meantime, books like these are important: They track the journey of our thinking about food, adding evidence and offering guidance along the way.
—Ms. Bone is the author of “The
Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals.”