Saturday, August 23, 2008

Shift from confined animal feeding operations would raise meat prices but cut other costs

"Even meat companies agree that change is unavoidable" in the system of industrial-scale feeding operations that produce most of America's meat, Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, writes in the Los Angeles Times. For consumers, that "likely means an end to 50 years of falling meat prices;" for farmers and rural communities, it means "operations that give animals more space and use different methods of feeding, sewage disposal and medical treatment," and perhaps less income as production slows.

Roberts' opinion piece is based in large measure on a report this spring from a study commission funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He reminds us of some fundamentals that most rural residents may have forgotten or never knew because they don't live on farms: Confined cattle fatten faster because they don't burn calories, and corn has more calories than grass; and "small, steady doses of antibiotics kill the low-grade infections that normally plague livestock, dosed animals spend fewer calories fighting infection. ... When fed antibiotics, livestock can grow 25 percent faster on the same intake of feed."

Bu the antibiotics, used to combat "crowded, unsanitary conditions," have spawned resistant disease strains, and confined animal feeding operations can be major sources of water pollution. "Taxpayers spend $4.1 billion cleaning up livestock sewage leaks and $2.5 billion treating salmonella," Roberts writes. "According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs may be costing taxpayers $38 billion a year -- costs that aren't reflected in the retail price of meat." (Read more)

For state and county statistics on CAFOs, broken down by type and number of animals, from Food and Water Watch, click here.

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