By Allison Lacko
CAFOs. Colorful Animals Frolicking Outdoors? Classes that Always Finish On time! Cranky Aunts Faking Orgasms. Hope I didn’t make you spit out your coffee on that last one (I kind of do).
I’ve been thinking a lot about CAFOs lately – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are specialized beef, swine or poultry farms where animals are housed in high concentrations. While these systems have led to the efficient and cheap production of meat, they have had resoundingly negative impacts on public health and the environment.
If you’re interested in nutrition, the way we produce our food is probably important to you, and you may be interested in CAFOs because of how they affect the equity and sustainability of our food system (see the end of this article for a ton of additional resources related to this). In addition, nutrition science has a more direct relationship with CAFOs that’s worth paying attention to.
By focusing on protein, dietary recommendations have provided the motivation for investment in the large-scale production of animals. However, in a post-1950’s capitalist economy, these ideas to consume more animal protein have metastasized into powerful beef, swine and poultry industries. Today, nutrition science struggles to promote the idea that the consumption of red meat leads to cardiovascular disease largely because these industries influence dietary recommendations and our own research agendas.
Coming up with Advice on Food Orders: History of Dietary Recommendations
When nutrition science first got its start, it primarily focused on two things: total calories and protein. In 1862, the very first dietary standard was developed primarily based on observing the food habits of factory workers. For 50 years, all subsequent dietary recommendations focused solely on energy and protein, with the notable exception of discovering that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy among sailors. Since evidence was from observing factory workers, estimates for calories and protein tended to be high: 3,000 calories and 80 grams of protein a day.
In the 1910’s, energy and protein needs began to be quantified using calorimetry and nitrogen balance studies. We began to recognize the importance of vitamins and minerals. In 1933, the USDA established dietary standards to inform what to include in food assistance programs during recovery from the Great Depression. These recommendations included only energy, protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C, and half of protein was recommended to come from animal sources.
Even as US dietary standards transitioned from relieving starvation to boarder population health, protein remained a primary focus. The reductionist focus throughout much of nutrition science’s history on isolated nutrients has led to policies that similarly focus on the promotion or restriction of single nutrients. The focus on protein, and specifically animal protein, led to government investment in agricultural research and infrastructure to support a sufficient and affordable supply of animal products.
Capitalism and Big-Ag Fly Out of control: The “Agro-Industrial Complex”
By the time nutrition science began to recognize the importance of fiber and diversity of fruits, vegetables and legumes in the 1960s, the industrialization of animal products was already underway. The Green Revolution of the 1940’s – 1960’s significantly increased productivity of corn, wheat and rice, and surpluses of these crops incentivized their conversion to animal feed, while concurrent farm animal management technologies allowed animals to be raised in higher concentrations. These trends in crop and livestock production reflect the trademark “consolidation, simplification and specialization” of the post World War II American economy.
On the one hand, this has led to the more efficient production of food, which has been essential to addressing world hunger. In the US, this has lowered the amount of money we spend on food, particularly beef (see figure below), during a time when other expenses, like education, healthcare and housing, are on the rise. However, the continued consolidation of livestock production that the CAFO has enabled has resulted in an agricultural system controlled by a handful of companies. In turn, this has led to a concentration of political power. For example, organized special interest groups in the livestock sector include the National Dairy Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The challenge we now face in the field of nutrition is that our science exists in a complicated political context. When nutrition scientists first recommended diets high in calories and protein, there was no counter argument from a powerful National Vegetable Council. Today, however, special interests in the meat industry complicate nutrition in two ways. First, public health nutrition messaging is clouded by special interests. While current nutrition science encourages the public to consider healthy overall eating patterns, recommends a diet that centers vegetables, fruits and legumes and cautions against the high consumption of red and processed meat, most Americans still consume diets high in meat. This is not entirely attributable to cultural inertia. Livestock special interests groups are responsible for advertising campaigns like “Got Milk?”, “Pork, the Other White Meat”, “The Incredible, Edible Egg” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” There is also evidence they influence government regulations and the US Dietary Guidelines, dating back from 1977 to today.
Second, industry has used its financial resources to directly support or silence research. Conflict-of-interest in research funding is not unique to the meat industry, or even nutrition science. The results are predictable: studies tied to industry-sponsorship are more likely to find results favorable to that industry. Examples include finding that consuming the recommended amount of dairy would reduce micronutrient deficiencies in the US (funded by Dairy Management Inc), that high-protein diets improve sleep (funded by The Beef Checkoff and National Pork Board) or that no association exists between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer or prostate cancer (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association). These studies are published in top nutrition journals. That study on protein and sleep quality was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. If we as nutrition researchers are getting bamboozled, can we blame the media, politicians and the general public for also being confused?
Conclusions And Faking Optimism
The interaction between nutrition science, industry influence and government policy is not unique to animal products and CAFOs. The debate over saturated fat and sugar, corn and soybean subsidies, and the supplement industry all share similar themes of nutrition research becoming more subjected to the pressures of special interest groups over time as well as confusion among the general public about what they should eat. The dominant role animal protein plays in our diet is no different. In all cases, when the results of a study smell fishy, we should be vigilant about checking who funded the study.
The meat industry’s influence would not be possible without the enormous financial power they have. That’s why, as a nutritionist, you should be concerned about CAFOs: because they enable the consolidation of livestock producers, which has resulted in powerful special interest groups that make it more difficult for us to communicate and conduct our science.
Luckily, election season is around the corner. Put pressure on your elected officials to oppose CAFOs and consolidation of the livestock industry, particularly if those politicians are running for president (Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren). However, reversing decades of consolidated power in the meat industry will be a long and challenging process. In the meantime, continue to be a skeptical science. And be a little forgiving when your mom asks you for the fifth time if she should eat less pork.
Peer-reviewed by Ruixue Hou
As promised, here are some additional resources if you’d like to learn more about CAFOs (this is by no means exhaustive and includes several shameless self-plugs).
General resource: Pew Charitable Trusts 2008 report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America
- My recent blog post about Smithfield hog farms in North Carolina
- Episode #2 of We All Gotta Eat
- 2007 congressional testimony from US Geological Survey (nutrient runoff, accumulation of pathogens and pharmaceutical products in wildlife, antibiotic resistance)
- Contract farming
- Episode #3 of We All Gotta Eat
- 2010 review on neuorological and respiratory health effects
- Nutrition science has also been key to the success of CAFOs because scientists work to optimize corn and soybean’s conversion to animal food with the highest efficiency, which means increasing the amount of eggs, milk or meat produced per given unit of feed consumed. If we’ve been optimizing feed to make animals fatten up on less of it, why have we been telling people that “calories in = calories out”?
- Debate about the nutritional quality of CAFO animals. Are there nutritional differences between naturally raised or conventionally raised livestock or poultry? To what extent toxins from animal feed accumulate in livestock?