Almost daily, it seems, Internet surfers are likely to find another discourse on the evils of factory farming. Today’s alarm is sounded — complete with a bevy of statistics — by George Wuerthner on NewWest.net. Wuerthner, who describes himself as an ecologist, writer and photographer, devotes his Web-based column this week to criticizing animal agriculture and, specifically, the amount of land that is used to raise grain and forage to feed livestock.
Wuerthner says that 80 percent of the grain raised in the United States is fed directly to livestock. “Since the United States is the leading producer of beef cattle in the world,” Wuerthner writes, “it is also the top animal feed producer in the world, with more than double the acreage in animal feed production than its closest rival China. This means the majority of cropland in the United States is not growing food for direct human consumption, as many presume, but is used to grow forage crops for domestic livestock, including chickens, hogs and cattle. In fact, in the United States, domestic livestock consume five times as much grain as the entire American population.”
Wuerthner also notes that it takes a lot of grain to feed cattle, hogs and chickens. He cites data that suggests cattle convert grain to beef at about a 7-to-1 ratio. No quibble there, but he also quotes Cornell University professor David Pimentel, who says that if the cropland currently used to grow grain fed to livestock were directed toward growing crops for human consumption, we could feed 800 million additional people or more likely provide a decent meal for those whose diet is inadequate.
The three major crops grown for livestock feed — corn, soybeans and hay/pasture — cover a minimum area of 200 million-plus acres, Wuerthner says. “To put these figures of animal feed cropland into perspective, the amount of land used to grow the top 10 fresh vegetables in the United States (asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, head lettuce, honeydew melons, onions, sweet corn and tomatoes) occupies about a million acres.”
Wuerthner also criticizes livestock production as destructive to the environment — destroying wildlife habitat, causing soil erosion and contaminating air and water. Read Wuerthner’s full condemnation of livestock production .
Bashing livestock and corn production in America is becoming a badge of honor for some of the Internet’s wannabe bloggers. But it’s a tired argument because, while they spew lots of statistics which are true, those statistics provide little accuracy to their position. Wuerthner’s article, “Factory farming’s long reach,” is a classic example of using statistics that are true to develop a conclusion that is inaccurate.
Wuerthner and Pimentel are no doubt well-educated and well-meaning. But, apparently, no amount of hiking through National Parks or studying college dissertations can provide a lick of common sense to their thinking. So, let me try.
When Wuerthner notes that the United States uses 200 million acres to grow corn, soybeans, hay and other crops for livestock consumption but only about 1 million acres to produce the top 10 vegetables, he is apparently suggesting that those figures be reversed. Now I would be the first to admit that a large percentage of Americans could stand to eat a few more salads and skip a few Big Macs. But it’s not so much that we should eat more vegetables — but can we? Can we really all become vegetarians and eat locally grown, organic foods from sustainable farms? I think not, and here’s why.
To get a better perspective on this issue, I turned to two respected experts — Dr. John Lawrence, Iowa State University extension economist and director of the Iowa Beef Center; and Tom Karst, national editor for The Packer, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry’s leading source for news. (Drovers/CattleNetwork and The Packer are both owned by Vance Publishing Corp.)
Both of those experts confirmed what I believed about the radical idea of planting most of Iowa and Illinois to asparagus and honey dew melons — it would be an utter failure, both economically and practically. You see, what Wuerthner and Pimentel fail to address is just how we are going to harvest millions of acres of celery, lettuce and tomatoes. There are no mechanical harvesters or pickers available now for the vegetables mentioned. That means the job must be done by hand. Oh, sure, we have a few technological advancements that make the job easier and reduce the labor force slightly. But for the most part, vegetable farming is still a labor intensive industry.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that instead of corn and soybeans we actually planted 50 million acres of vegetables in the Corn Belt this summer. And we know we need people to help harvest the crop. Who are those people, and where do they come from? Of course, most of the labor that harvests those vegetables now are undocumented or illegal immigrants. Karst says it is likely that 1 million laborers now work in America’s fruit and vegetable industries, and as many as 70 percent of them are undocumented. So, if we increased our vegetable production from 1 million acres to 50 million acres we would need… gulp… another 50 million farm workers.
Now, again, just for the sake of argument, let’s say we’re opposed to bringing in an additional 50 million immigrants from countries that are located near the Equator. That would mean that we — Americans — would have to do that field work ourselves. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see many Wall Street brokers leaving their air-conditioned offices to help pick broccoli, cauliflower and sweet corn this summer.
Of course, the labor problem is only a small part of the total issue. For instance, Dr. Lawrence notes that animal agriculture is a “value-added opportunity to increase wealth from the land.” That means that cattlemen increase the value of their animals — more weight, better quality — by feeding them corn. And landowners increase the value of production from their land by growing corn that is fed to livestock. “Take away animals and reduce the demand for corn and we would need to idle a lot of land,” Lawrence says.
Folks, those are two reasons that converting the Corn Belt into the Vegetable Belt just won’t work anytime soon. — Greg Henderson, Drovers editor