Kauai’s chemical companies (seed farmers) like to tell us they’re feeding the world. Using poisons and genetic engineering, they’ve helped give us an Everest of cheap federally subsidized corn that is fed to cattle, which gives us cheap beef. Since looking into this feeding of grain to a grass-eater, I no longer eat cheap beef. I buy local, and I’d like to tell you why.
My story begins with Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book about three sources of meals: American Agribusiness, organic farms, and hunting/gathering. In chapter 4, “The Feedlot”, Pollan purchases an eight-month-old steer in South Dakota and follows his steer to a feedlot in Kansas where it will be fattened for slaughter. He smells the lot’s stench more than a mile before seeing: 37,000 cattle, a hundred or so per pen, standing or lying in a gray slurry of feces, urine and mud, as far as the eye can see.
His steer will exist briefly in this place so different from a farm or ranch that a new name had to be invented: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, which could not exist without corn that cost CAFOs less to buy than it does to grow, corn that has “found its way into the diet of [cattle] that never used to eat much of it … In their short history, CAFOs have produced more than their share … of polluted water and air, toxic wastes [and] novel and deadly pathogens” and a waste pollution problem “which seldom is remedied at all.”
Pollan wonders: how does one get a creature that eats grass to help rid America’s of its Everest of corn? After all, the cow is built to turn grass, not grain, into protein using its rumen, a highly evolved 45-gallon fermentation tank housing a co-evolved population of grass-dining bacteria.
But at these CAFOs, “an animal exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us (emphasis mine)-at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters… The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer [is] a triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution.”
His steer has not eaten a blade of grass since shortly after being weaned. Why? In agribusiness-speak: efficiency. Decades ago, according to Pollan’s source, cows took 48-60 months to reach slaughter weight.
Today’s cows go from 80 to 1,100 pounds in 14 to 16 months by being fed tremendous quantities of corn, protein, fat, and an arsenal of new drugs. To agribusiness chemists it’s all perfectly rational. Others wonder “if that rational logic might not also be completely mad.”
Pollan’s calf was herded into a “backgrounding” pen and “bunk broken”, meaning, learning to eat an unnatural diet from a trough. Rumen meets corn.
At this Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, a tractor-trailer each hour unloads about 100,000 pounds of corn. One feedlot, 37,000 cattle, 1 MILLION POUNDS PER DAY. The corn is crushed, cooked and fortified with liquefied fat, protein, liquid vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and sack upon 50-pound sack of Rumensin and Tylosin antibiotics. That liquefied fat fed to Pollan’s steer likely will come from cattle rendered at the very slaughterhouse his steer will end up at.
Protein allowed includes chicken feather meal; chicken bedding, feces and discarded feed; and chicken, fish and pig meal. Think about this: Feeding cow fat and animal meat to cows. Cow brains and spinal cords were allowed until 1997, when it was proved they caused Mad Cow Disease.
When a cow’s “diet contains too much starch (corn) and too little roughage (grass), rumination all but stops, a …foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap the (fermentation) gas. The rumen inflates (and) presses against the animal’s lungs.” A hose has to be forced down its throat to relieve the pressure, or the cow suffocates.
Corn renders the normally pH-neutral rumen acidic. “Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. (This) can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, (leaving) a weakened animal vulnerable to… pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia and feedlot polio.” Between 30-70 percent of feedlot cows have their rumen walls eaten away by acid, resulting in abscessed livers.
USDA’s decades-long policy of moving mountains of cheap corn through quickly fattened food animals has given us cheap thickly-marbled USDA #1 beef, containing far more saturated fat and far less omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed beef.
The bulk of antibiotics sold in America are fed to CAFO cattle so they are healthy enough to be slaughtered.
I’ve not knowingly bought a single ounce of corn-fed beef since reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I buy local. Kauai grows some of the best beef in the world, grass-fed and aged the old-fashioned way. Buy local, because when you look at the way American Agribusiness operates, when you look at emerging science on GE crops, when you look at the three-odd tons of restricted-use poisons “seed farmers” spray on Kauai, you realize that “cheap” corn and “cheap” beef really are two of just about the most expensive foods on the entire planet Earth.
• Wayne Jacintho was raised in Kalaheo, attended and Waimea High School. He is a retired woodworker, writer and photographer on Kauai.