Big Ag: It’s Really Small, Sustainable Farms Making You Sick

Dubious research funded by large corporations points a finger at mom-and-pop operations.

cow in field
What, you really think I'm the problem here? (Photo: Peter Gridley/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

We’ve known for years about Big Ag’s influence, through market saturation and advertising, on the consumer. But many don’t know about the corporate food industry’s efforts to use the scientific community to produce research that endorses its factory farming methods and casts doubt on sustainable practices. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) has for years served as the corporate food industry’s scientific shill, putting out reports that defend genetically modifying animals, criticize land and water conservation efforts, and cast doubt on the impact of factory farming on air quality and climate change.

The council’s list of funders (from its 2011 annual report) tells the real story, reading like a who’s who of industrial food offenders and defenders: Monsanto, Kraft, Land O’Lakes, Dow, Dupont, Coca-Cola, and many others.

CAST’s latest report, though, might be its most brazen yet. On Monday, CAST researchers took the report to Capitol Hill to lobby for Big Ag’s interests. As efforts to revise the Farm Bill rage on Capitol Hill, CAST researchers told House and Senate staffers Monday that that the source of concern regarding food safety is not the industrial food system, with its confinement of animals, overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials, and questionable feeding practices. (More than 30 outbreaks of food-borne illness since 2000, anyone?)

According to them, the real boogey man is – get this – of the grass-fed, cage-free, sustainable variety: “Significant changes to livestock production practices… including modification of stocking densities, limitations on antimicrobial use, and requirements for outdoor ‘experiences’ … may affect animal health, productivity, and food quality,” the report states in its introduction.

In other words, beware the cow that is allowed to roam free and eat grass, because it may make you sick. Because, of course, confining animals to a space barely wider than their bodies for the duration of their lives while pumping them with drugs and corn is natural.

CAST seems to adhere to “very traditional, reductionist views,” according to Jennifer Colby, Pasture Program Coordinator at the University of Vermont. The study released Monday, Colby says, fails to account for the “big picture, the whole system,” namely that animals who express natural behaviors (like roaming free and eating plants) tend to be healthier and that large-scale animal operations have a greater impact on water and soil quality than small operations while failing support farmers and communities as well.

Here’s what CAST had to say about cage-free efforts:

The move to less restrictive housing systems for food production animals in countries such as those in the European Union will no doubt influence husbandry practices in the United States. For example, the recent move by some retailers to start sourcing poultry products from cage-free systems and pork from swine operations that do not use gestation stalls must be considered, because poorly managed, less restrictive systems can have dramatic impacts on animal health.

The real research on the subject reveals the opposite, however, says Mark Kastel of Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. The institute has conducted studies linking salmonella in egg production to large-scale farms, the use of cages and forced molting.

What’s more, noticeably absent from CAST’s report are any references to studies of the health benefits of grass-fed animals, such as a 2002 Cornell study that concluded that grass-fed cattle contain as much as 80 percent less E. coli in their stomachs than their grain-fed counterparts.

“There is plenty of peer-reviewed public research, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence directly from farmers, that animals that are outside, especially ruminants on grass, live much longer, happier and healthier lives,” Kastel says.

But this kind of evidence is unlikely to satisfy corporations who mass-produce meat on factory farms – or the “research” councils who work for them.

Does it surprise you that many scientists and think-tanks are funded by Big Agriculture to support factory farm practices?

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