Pollan, a former editor at Harper's magazine, is the
author of The Botany of Desire and
The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
With National Public Radio (NPR), Pollan talks about his experience
as a small-scale rancher and his decision to buy a cow and track
its journey from birth to slaughterhouse to rendering plant.
He also discusses the widespread use of antibiotics in the meat
industry, and why he thinks the system is fragile and susceptible
to microbes and pathogens.
Cows take grass, which we can't digest, which very few creatures
can digest, and turn it into fuel. What is so amazing about
POLLAN: A cow out on grass is just an
incredible thing to behold. Cows and other ruminants can do
things we just can't. They have the most highly evolved digestive
organ on the planet called the rumen which can digest grass.
It takes the grass, cellulose in grass, and turns it into very
to take land that is not good enough for agriculture Ė that
will grow grass and nothing else, which is how itís been for
the past 10,000 years since the buffalo -- and put a cow on
it . . . there's something beautiful about
that, and it's just the way it was meant to be.
I went into this story (for the New York Times) thinking,
"Well, that's how we get meat." But alas, it's not true.
What do you mean?
POLLAN: By the time a modern American
beef cow is six months old, it has seen its last blade of grass
for the rest of its life. As soon as they wean, they spend the
first six months out on the pasture with their moms, nursing,
nibbling grass. The mom is converting the grass's protein into
milk for the animal -- the way itís been done for millions of
years. Then we take them off grass, put them in what we call
backgrounding pens, and teach them how to eat something that
they are not evolved to eat, which is grain -- mostly corn.
Why do we do this?
POLLAN: Very good question, because it
makes absolutely no sense from an ecological standpoint. From
a financial standpoint, it makes them grow a lot faster, makes
them fatter, and we like our meat fat and marbled. And it allows
us to speed up the lifespan. In capitalism, time is money.
taking cows that we used to grow for four or five years before
we ate them, and now we've got it down to 14 months, and we're
heading toward 11 months. What allows us to do this is getting
them on corn, that is getting them off this whole evolutionary
relationship they've had with grass.
So most people think of a cow as something that's out
grazing, and then is taken to the slaughterhouse?
POLLAN: Cows see very little grass nowadays in their lives.
And the problem with this system, or one of the problems with
this system, is that cows are not evolved to digest corn. The
rumen is designed for grass. And corn is just too rich, too
starchy. So as soon as you introduce corn, the animal is liable
to get sick. The animal has to be
taught how to eat corn, which happens in the backgrounding pen
at the ranch, which is kind of the prep school for the feedlot.
that stage, you have to start giving them antibiotics, because
as soon as you give them corn, you've disturbed their digestion
and they're apt to get sick. In order to feed them what theyíre
not meant to eat, you have to go down this path of technological
fixes, and the first is the antibiotics. Once they start eating
corn, they become more vulnerable to stress and the different
diseases cows get. Specifically they get bloat, which is a horrible
thing, and they stop ruminating.
have this image of a cow on grass, (ruminating) chewing its
cud and burping a lot. A lot of greenhouse
gases come out of the stock as methane emerges from their mouths
as they eructate. In the process, the cow brings down saliva
which keeps its stomach alkaline rather than acid.
you introduce the corn and a layer of slime forms over the rumen,
which can be likened to a 45-gallon fermentation tank. It's
essentially fermenting the grass. Suddenly, slime forms and
the gas can't escape, and the rumen just expands like a balloon.
It's pressing against the lungs and the heart, and if nothing
is done the animal suffocates.
catch it in time, you stick a hose down the esophagus to release
the gas, and then maybe give the animal some hay or grass.
all cows get bloat. They're prone to bloat. It's a serious problem
on feedlots. They also get acidosis, which is an acidifying
of the rumen. And when the animals get acid stomach, or bad
heartburn, they have to go off their feed. If you give them
too much corn too quickly, it ulcerates the rumen, allowing
bacteria escape from the rumen into the blood stream.
Eventually, the bacteria ends up in the liver, causing
what do we do about it? We administer another antibiotic. Most
cows on feedlots, force-fed on a rich diet of corn, are prone
to liver damage.
Bill Haw , who runs a lot of these big feedlots,
says: "We've learned that the livers are not very economically
viable, and there's a willingness to sacrifice the liver for
the overall growth, which far transcends the value of the liver
that may be damaged in the process." In other words the economic
calculus justifies ruining their liver. I've heard that between
15 percent to 30 percent of livers are
too abscessed for people to eat. And
if their liver fails, you have a sick cow because other things
hereís the issue: you have an economic
logic, and an evolutionary and natural logic. It may well make
sense economically to feed cows what we feed them, but ecologically
it's a disaster because they're getting sick.
take the Midwest and pave it essentially with corn and soybeans,
and suffer the environmental consequences of growing all that
corn, most of which is grown to feed livestock. There's a dead
zone in the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles wide that is the
result of nitrogen runoff coming down the Mississippi and killing
all the life in this zone. And that's a result coming directly
the cow is connected to that dead zone in the Gulf and itís
connected to our health. There is an ecological logic that is
very different than the economic logic. And in that ecological
logic, you can't separate the health of the cow, the health
of the environment and the health of the eater.
Why do we feed them corn in the first place? When did
that start happening, and what was the reason for it?
POLLAN: We feed them corn because it's
the cheapest, most convenient thing we can give them. Corn is
incredibly cheap; it costs about $2.25 for a bushel of corn,
which is 50 pounds. It actually costs less to buy than it costs
to grow, because of subsidies. It's also very compact;
corn allows you to urbanize your livestock population
in America. Since corn takes up so little space relative to
its food value, you can bring all the animals into a small space.
How long have we been doing it?
POLLAN: For a long time. In the 19th century,
we would grow animals on grass up to a few months before slaughter,
and then we'd give them some corn mixed in. We like our meat
fat, and corn makes it fatter, and more tender and tasty. I
suspect weíve been conditioned thatís how our beef should taste.
But it's only post-World War II that we began putting the cows
on feedlots in high concentrations, when you had the explosion
of corn surpluses and people were giving it away.
yield of an acre of American farmland went from 20 bushels of
corn in 1900 to 138 in the 1990s. With improvements in technology
in American agriculture, specifically in chemical fertilizers,
we were able to get so much corn off the land that they didn't
know how to get rid of it. So the USDA, as policy, encouraged
the farmer to feed corn, not just to cows, but to chickens and
fish and now in pigs.
Surplus sounds like a good idea.
POLLAN: Economically, itís a good idea.
But economics is not the measure of all things. Right now we're
passing half of the corn crop in America through the guts of
animals, some of whom are adapted to it, others not.
It seems that chickens and pigs donít have the same digestive
problems as cows. Cows are ruminants,
designed for another kind of food.
Explain to somebody in New York City what the abbreviated
life of a cow is these days.
POLLAN: A cow is born in the late winter
on a ranch; could be the product of artificial insemination
or traditional sexual reproduction. It spends the first six
months of its life with its mother on pasture and grass. The
American food chain, when it comes to beef, starts out like
the wide end of the funnel. It's as big as the Great Plains.
weaning, which is normally in the fall of the first year, after
six to eight months, the cows are taken off the grass and moved
into the backgrounding pen, where they are sorted and separated
from their mother, which makes it one of the more traumatic
events in a cow's life because the mothers are bellowing and
looking around for their calves for several days.
separate them as far away as you can, so they can't hear one
another. And then you start them on this ration of corn, at
first modest, with some silage, which is whole cornstalks, and
then some corn or other grain and still some hay. And then you
start with the drugs because to get them to tolerate that diet,
they have to take a drug called Rumensin, which is a kind of
antibiotic -- a drug which is so toxic you can't give it to
spend a few months in the backgrounding pen until they get up
to 600-700 pounds Ė from their original 80 pounds. You can actually
decide on how fast you want your animal to grow by feeding into
a computer information on the weather, the humidity etc, and
it will tell you exactly what to feed it to put on two pounds
the cow hits 600-700 pounds, itís trucked to the feedlots where
its life changes substantially: it will never see grass again.
A feedlot is a city of cows. I saw several of them in western
Kansas, and it was a stunning experience. You're driving down
these ramrod straight roads through Kansas, which is mostly
prairie, and suddenly you encounter a giant subdivision, only
it's a city for animals: cattle pens and black earth as far
as you can see. Of course it's not really earth but
manure reaching to the horizon.
can be between 35,000 to 100,000 animals in the space of a couple
of hundred acres. And in the middle of the city is a single
landmark, the silver feed-mill, which is several stories high.
Itís like a cathedral around which everything rotates.
feedlot is like a medieval town, before modern sanitation. Back
then, towns and cities were filthy and vulnerable to plague
because you had people coming from many different places, bringing
microbes into a concentrated area where they could spread.
only reason this doesn't happen in the modern city of animals
is due to modern antibiotics. Take away these antibiotics and
the feedlots would degenerate into pestilential, plague-ridden-like
14th century towns.
hour there are trucks hauling in liquefied fat and liquefied
protein, another with 50,000 pounds of corn, and then thereís
all the waste going out, mostly manure, pooled in lagoons. The
smell is overwhelming, like the menís room in bus stations,
and you wear it in your clothing for days after.
It sounds rather disgusting the way you describe it.
What's the purpose, what's the advantage of the system?
POLLAN: It's a wonderfully efficient factory
system for producing protein. It takes corn, fat, vitamins and
drugs, and like a mill, passes them through the bovine digestive
system. The animals gain up to four pounds a day, half of which
is edible meat.
Bill Haw argues that if you could interview a cow, it
would probably choose to be in the feedlot because it gets all
the food it wants and it's treated if it has medical conditions.
POLLAN: Open up the gates to some green
grass and see how many cows stick around.
It's hard to speculate about what
constitutes animal happiness, but one definition is an
animal doing what it's evolved to do. Cows grazing on grass
look happy doing it.
Is there really a noticeable difference between a cow
in its natural element and a cow in a feedlot?
POLLAN: The cows in feedlots looked sullen.
I'm hesitant to anthropomorphize, but the cows are standing
around in their manure all day long when they are basically
evolved to avoid their feces because natural selection would
have favoured animals that stayed away from the parasites that
are found in feces. When feedlot cows lie down to sleep itís
in their own feces.
that bother a cow? My guess is at some level it does. But cows
live in the present. Who knows whether or not they think back
nostalgically to their grass grazing days.
But give them a choice between corn and hay and theyíll
always go for the hay, not only for the taste but for the healing
it does to their stomachs. It stimulates
the rumen, allows them to ruminate and regurgitate.
Why did you buy a cow in the first place?
POLLAN: I decided to become a small-scale
rancher to learn about the business. I wanted to see it from
the inside. So from a rancher in South Dakota,
I purchased a steer and a calf, and followed them through
the whole process. The hero of my story, cow number #534, is
now in a feedlot in south-western Kansas.
chronicling everything he eats, the drugs he gets, and how much
money he brings at the end. One of the things I wanted to understand
better is the calculation a rancher makes when he's deciding,
for instance, whether to give a hormone implant to his animal,
which strikes me as a bad idea. Should
we be eating meat that has residues of hormones, even though
no one has proved it's harmful?
do it because $1.50 worth of hormones puts 40-50 pounds on the
final weight of your animal, which is worth $25-$35. The economic
calculus is irresistible, and it's legal. Whether or not Iíll
eat my cow is an option.
When will your cow meet its end?
POLLAN: My cow has a date with the knocker, or the stunner,
in June. One day in June, he will be judged sufficiently fat,
that is obese so it can hardly move, and the owner of the feedlot
will say, "This pen is ready."
then truck the cow to a pen in a parking lot where it waits
its turn, goes up the ramp and through a blue door.
I was not allowed to go through the blue door. Journalists
are not allowed into the kill floor, even if you own the animal.
But I have reconstructed what happens on the other side of the
animals, in single file, pass over a bar, their legs on both
sides, and then the floor slowly drops away so the bar is serving
like a conveyor belt which takes them to a station where a man
on a catwalk is holding an object that looks like a power nailing
gun. It's a pneumatic device called a
stunner. The stunner essentially injects, between the eyes into
the brain, a metal bolt the size and length of a thick pencil,
which should render it brain dead.
that point, the cow is lifted by chains that have been attached
to its rear legs. Another person in another station, with a
long knife, cuts the aorta to bleed the animal, after which
he is completely dead.
there, the cow goes through a series of stations for cleaning
and hide removal. One of the real problems is that the animals
have spent their lives lying in their manure, and as a result,
they are smeared and caked with the stuff, so many steps are
taken to ensure the manure doesn't infect the meat, which can
happen very easily. One of the food-safety
problems in the industry is microbes from the manure getting
into the meat.
can be lethal because it contains microbes like
E. coli O157, a strain of
common intestinal bacteria, which is principally a feedlot
microbe. If we ingest only 10 of those bacteria, they can kill.
The problems concerning contaminated hamburgers and the Jack
in the Box episode from several years ago are a result of this
story of this pathogen illustrates the ecological links between
the health of these animals and the health of us. E. coli O157
wasn't isolated until the early 1980s; itís not found
in the guts of animals that eat grass. It is a problem associated
with feeding animals corn.
rumen, which is not an acidic environment, becomes acidic when
it's fed corn. These E. coli bacteria evolved to be able to
withstand the acid of the rumen. So they are acid-tolerant bacteria.
Therefore, when they get into our guts -- through the manure,
onto the carcass of the animal, into the hamburger -- they are
able to survive our digestive processes; whereas in the past,
if you had an equally lethal microbe resident in the gut of
a cow, it probably wasnít acid-tolerant since it didn't live
in such an environment, so our stomachs could give it a gastric
shock. This is one of the protections
built into the food chain that we've messed with by acidifying
the guts of these animals.
industry's response -- and the industry is working very hard
to keep the meat clean, there's no question about it -- is a
series of high-tech solutions, such as steam spraying the meat
with a milk/water solution that kills off most of the bacteria.
also irradiating the meat because itís easier and cheaper than
keeping the cows away from the microbe infested manure.
a much simpler solution proposed by Cornell researcher James
Russell: put the cows back on grass
or hay for the last days of their live because the pH levels
in their stomachs return to normal, killing as much as 80% of
the microbes. But the
industry doesn't want to hear about it because itís too costly
to bring in all that hay into a feedlot on top of which the
cows would lose valuable weight. King
Corn runs the American cattle business and will have no truck
with this anti-corn message which has largely fallen on deaf
What's wrong with a system that, because of the technology,
results in cheap meat and greater efficiency?
POLLAN: Cheap meat is a bit of a myth just as cheap feed is
a myth. The true costs of cheap food are being borne by someone
other than the consumer. Over half of the antibiotics in this
country go to livestock, which is why these drugs no longer
work for us. The reason I have trouble finding a good antibiotic
for my sonís ear infection is directly related to the cost of
that cheap hamburger. This is but one expensive public health
also food poisoning. And then thereís
the environmental cost of all of this corn which is polluting
the Gulf of Mexico. That's a cost not reflected in that cheap
hamburger. And then finally there's the cost to the animals,
too, and their own health. Cheap meat is only true in the very
narrow sense. It all depends on the way
you do your math.
terms of food safety, irradiating meat is better than not.
And Iím not saying we shouldnít be using these technologies
but we should be looking at the system as a whole.
Environmentalists are concerned about feedlots because
of all the water that comes out of them which is full of pharmaceuticals
which means there are hormones in our water.
Weíre now finding fish with strange sexual characteristics
downstream from feedlots because these antibiotics are getting
into the environment.
is another cost that never gets counted. When you eat meat,
you're eating oil. The reason we
can grow corn so cheaply is because we give the corn a chemical
fertilizer that is a fossil fuel product to the effect that
weíve taken the rumen, which is this sustainable solar organ,
and we've turned it into another
fossil fuel burner -- which is the last thing we need.
It takes about 100 gallons of oil to grow a single animal,
which is another cost that weíre not seeing: the cost of oil,
of having a military to defend the Gulf, itís all related.
great lesson of ecology is that everything is connected.
nowadays farmers canít be bothered to own a few cows which they
can later slaughter. It can now be done
on less space. Isnít that another argument
in their favour?
POLLAN: There's no question that the beef
industry has done something quite incredible.
Theyíve taken a product, meat, which was once for upper-classes
only, and turned it into a staple for everybody.
Is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Todayís beef
isnít very good for us. Animals raised
on corn produce fattier meat, but fattier isnít healthier.
Corn-fed beef produces lots of saturated fat which can
cause heart disease. Hunter-gatherers
who subsisted on lots of grass-fed meat never had heart disease.
always say, "You are what you eat." But that's only half the
story. We're also what what we eat eats, too. And cows that
eat corn are a different kind of meat. So when we're eating
that corn-fed, oil-fed meat, we're incurring another kind of
cost. So yes. We've democratized
meat, but itís a less healthy product which impacts negatively
on the environment.
poisoning is a much more serious problem than it was 100 years
ago. In part, because of the advent
of industrial agriculture, but also because we import food from
all over the world, all of which canít be inspected.
But much of it has to do with the way we grow our food
and mix 100 different cows in a single burger. We never used
to do that. The butcher used to take the scraps from the one
animal and make his hamburger right in front of your eyes. Now,
with centralization, you get one infected carcass and that meat
can spread all around the country.
best thing that ever happened to microbes is the centralization
of agriculture. There were very few diseases until we had cities,
which is like a petri dish for food poisoning.
So this efficient system is also efficient for the microbes?
POLLAN: Very efficient for the microbes.
Take any system, centralize it, and a small problem can destroy
it, much like a computer virus can bring down computers worldwide
because theyíre all running on the same Microsoft program.
Let's explore in more detail
antibiotics. Why are
we using them so much?
POLLAN: The Union of Concerned Scientists
did a study last year and determined that over half the antibiotics
are used for animals. If you give low
levels of antibiotics to an animal, it will grow more quickly.
Some of the use is prophylactic, to prevent the animal from
getting sick. Antibiotics are used against
liver disease because cows canít digest corn. And now weíre
in a situation where microbes are becoming resistant to antibiotics
such as Cipro and Tetracycline. Some of
these superbugs are showing up in our hospitals.
We now have to deal with antibiotic-resistant
gonorrhoea and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis.
health advocates consider antibiotic resistant microbes to be
the most serious threat to our public health; new antibiotics
arenít being developed fast enough
We hear that the industry is beginning to wean itself
off antibiotics. Is this true?
POLLAN: That's what they say. The chicken
industry claims that they have reduced their use of antibiotics,
which is great, if true. It's on their own say-so.
many years, agribusiness claimed that there was no public health
problem with their use of antibiotics because the link between
human health and the agricultural use of antibiotics
had not been established. Nobody makes that argument any more
except die-hard, industry spokesmen. The FDA, the CDC and every
public health expert acknowledge the problem. As a result, the
industry, in an effort to forestall regulations which are on
their way, has taken voluntary steps. Whether they can do it
without changing their practices is an interesting question.
If they can reduce antibiotic use without loss of productivity
due to disease, why use them in the first place?
There are still lots of questions out there but we are
moving in the right direction.
So with the threat of microbes going global, what are
we to do?
POLLAN: First of all, learning to calculate
the costs in terms of public health. Let's
say we banned the non-clinical, non-therapeutic
use of antibiotics in livestock. This
would slow down the entire system. The
Europeans have done it and theyíre still producing food at reasonable
prices, perhaps up by no more than five to 10%.
I'd like to see us go back to a system where we relied more
on grass. Imagine the Midwestern farm belt turned back to pasture
on which animals could graze. That system worked pretty well,
resulting in healthy meat and less environmental damage.
like the taste of grass-fed meat. It is chewier.
The Argentines make excellent beef that's grass-fed.
They've learned how to age it, something weíve forgotten how
terms of the entire food system that has been industrialized,
thereís no doubt weíve made some incredible advances in terms
of productivity, efficiency and cost. But it has also given
us a system that is very fragile and is making us sick. Our
diets are killing us. A step or two backwards, to what we were
doing 50 years ago, might be a step forward as it concerns public
far as Iím concerned, the system in its present form is unsustainable.
In fact itís already breaking down in various ways. More
and more of us are getting sick, to that add Mad Cow Disease
Ė who is to say the system wonít one day collapse under its
Youíre making the case for stepping back a little.
Why not a regulatory approach to better minimize the
risks of harmful food?
POLLAN: These are Band-Aids which you need to stop the bleeding
but they donít solve the problem. You
need to look at the entire system, not just the symptoms.
We insist on cheap food, but itís a choice with enormous
consequences, which is why some regulation is necessary.
For example, legislating the use of antibiotics in livestock
only when the animal is sick. McDonaldís
has actually become a force for change in the cattle business
in terms of humane slaughter. When they
said they were unhappy that animals were getting past the stun
process and were being skinned alive, auditing processes were
introduced overnight. McDonald's is in
a unique position. If they decide they donít want meat with
hormones in it, that will be the end of hormones in meat. Exerting
pressure on McDonald's is probably just as important as on the
Department of Agriculture.
Is irradiation safe?
POLLAN: I don't know. It's basically bombarding
food with gamma rays. It has no
effect on Mad Cow Disease. The thing to
keep in mind is that every technology will need another technology.
Nature will outwit any technology. This is what evolution
has been doing for billions of years.
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