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EARTH ETHICS Spring 2006, 14(1)

Industrial Agriculture and Humane Sustainable Food Systems

by Richard M. Clugston and Wynn Calder

"You are what you eat." While there are many factors that influence who we are, the adage does capture a basic fact. Our bodies and minds are shaped by our daily food choices. If we are malnourished, either by having too little of the right foods to eat, or too much of the wrong foods, our health and identity will suffer. But our nourishment is not only a personal issue, it is a broader "sustainability" issue. We live in an era no longer of agriculture, but of globalized agribusiness. There is plenty of food for all 6.6 billion of us. But food is produced and distributed primarily to increase the profits of corporations. Parallel to the increasing income gap between rich and poor, we have a food and nutrition gap. According to the United Nations, there are some 850 million undernourished people worldwide-those who do not receive the minimum nutritional intake-who are hungry, while over a billion people suffer from "overnutrition," i.e., who are overweight and obese. Ironically, the overnourished include "300 million obese adults and 115 million suffering from obesity-related conditions in the developing world" (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).

2006 has been a watershed year in elevating two critical sustainability issues to public attention. Climate change has finally been recognized as a real and monumental challenge, epitomized in the success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." In this same year, a remarkable number of books, articles, and media attention have focused on our food and agricultural system, from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and The Nation's "Food Issue" (September 2006) to policy debates over the 2007 US Farm Bill and the collapse of the World Trade Organization's Doha Round.

The rapid industrialization, and global economic integration, of food production is promoted as bringing quality, affordable food to more people. And for many, food is cheaper and choices are greater than ever before. Yet the increasing agribusiness control of the food system in more and more countries also brings monoculture, mechanization, genetic engineering, pesticides, and intense confinement of animals. Industrial agriculture is creating major environmental and public health problems. The welfare and livelihoods of the rural poor are undermined, and the urban poor in developed countries only have access to highly processed, unhealthy foods. Agricultural workers are exploited. Biological and cultural diversity, soil fertility, ecosystem services are all diminished. Farm animals suffer horribly in confinement systems. In fact, the modern factory farm, or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), is the "poster child" for the destructiveness of industrial agriculture, as the introductory articles in this issue from the Center for a Livable Future and Worldwatch point out. "Many of the problems inherent in industrial agriculture are more acute when the output is meat" (Horrigan, et al., 2002).

There is a better way to create a prosperous and sustainable future for all. This requires a more locally based, organic, humane, and fairly traded agriculture - not the food system being pushed by the dominant interests in economic globalization. Our development policies and practices require fundamental shifts in neo-liberal market economics to internalize social and environmental costs, and to respect and care for all members of the life community, all people and all animals, and their future generations. As Pollan describes in The Omnivore's Dilemma: "The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost-to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves" (2006, 200).
This issue of Earth Ethics emphasizes the following themes, which are touched on in this article and explored more deeply in the articles that follow:
1. Food and farm facts and trends, with special attention to meat consumption and industrial (CAFO) production,
2. The destructiveness of industrial agriculture and why so few food producers or policy makers are putting in place the incentives, regulations and production systems for humane, sustainable food,
3. A better way: humane and sustainable food systems, and
4. Shifting practice and policy to strengthen humane and sustainable food systems.

Food and farm facts and trends, with special attention to meat consumption and industrial (CAFO) production
The number of farms and farmers has decreased steadily over the past 100 years. Between 1979 and 1998, the US farmer population decreased by 300,000. About 94% of America's farms are small farms, but they receive only 41% of all farm receipts (United States Department of Agricul-ture National Commission on Small Farms, 1998). Technological innovation has reduced the amount of human labor necessary to produce a unit output of food or fiber, and the number of farmers and farm workers needed to produce a bushel of corn or a pound of beef has dropped dramatically. On the other hand, the amount of energy necessary to produce this same bushel or pound has risen dramatically. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced about 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 that ratio was closer to 1:1. Today, processed food requires about ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. CAFOs require about thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef, and nearly sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork (Manning, 2004). Petroleum (as fuel and as agrichemicals) has replaced human and animal labor, and this replacement is financed by large amounts of capital. Capital has been substituted for labor. Farms have become more mechanized and more dependent on fertilizers, pesticides and oil to produce large volumes of one or two crops.

Government subsidized corn is America's number one crop. Ironically, the majority of this corn (about 60%) goes to feed the animals in factory farms. "Here, hundreds of millions of food animals that once lived on family farms and ranches are gathered together in great commissaries," writes Pollan (2006, 64) "where they consume as much of the mounting pile of surplus corn as they can digest, turning it into meat. Enlisting the cow in this undertaking has required particularly heroic efforts, since the cow is by nature not a corn eater."

The global consumption of meat and milk is projected to grow by 55% over the next 20 years, mostly in the developing world (in fact, mostly in China). The consumption of fats, oils and sugars is also increasing (up by 30% in the US). Meat and milk production will more frequently be occurring in industrial settings. "Industrial systems today generate 74% of the world's poultry products, 50% of all pork, 43% of beef and 68% of eggs" (Nierenberg, 2005).

The destructiveness of industrial agriculture and why so few food producers or policy makers are putting in place the incentives, regulations and production systems for humane, sustainable food
Farm workers and animals are treated as cogs in the industrial agriculture machine. CAFOs undermine the livelihoods of rural communities and smallholders, exploit workers, cause great environmental damage, and contribute to acute and chronic human health problems. In addition they inflict great suffering annually on nearly10 billion animals in the United States alone (see "Eating for the Animals" in this issue, p. 19). Staggering amounts of animal waste (2.7 trillion pounds per year in the US) has contaminated 35,000 miles of rivers, and polluted groundwater in 17 states (Sierra Club, 2007). "What keeps a feedlot animal healthy-or healthy enough-are antibiotics," writes Pollan (2006, 78). "Rumensin buffers acidity in the rumen, helping to prevent bloat and acidosis, and Tylosin, a form of erythromycin, lowers the incidence of liver infection. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs" (see also Walker, et al., p. 14 in this issue).

The mantra of "economic growth through increasing consumption" is particularly strong in the United States. In many areas of life-buying bigger houses or owning more cars-there is no apparent limit to how many or how much we can own or consume. But when we encounter food, we encounter an "inelastic demand." Unlike cars, or houses, or entertainment centers, the human body can only consume so much food. Having been effective in "supersizing"1 us, the food corporations have a unique challenge in continuing to expand our demand.

According to the US surgeon general, obesity has become an epidemic. Obesity-related health problems now cost the health care system approximately $90 billion a year and have overtaken smoking as America's most critical, preventable public health problems. Directly related to obesity is the epidemic of diabetes in America, which has more than doubled in incidence since 1990 and is the cause of several hundred thousand deaths per year. What was once referred to as "adult-onset" diabetes is now called "Type 2" as increasing numbers of obese children are diagnosed with it. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90%-95% of cases and is linked to obesity and physical inactivity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). Notably, the rise in diabetes is a worldwide problem: most victims live in developing countries, but among wealthy countries the US has the highest rates.

A variety of factors keep the highly processed fast food trend rising, e.g., agribusiness interest in profit through high input (oil and corn) mechanized farming; cultural valuing of meat (and undervaluing of the well-being of farm animals); individual choices of sweet, fatty fast food; effective advertising; and government complicity and support.

In Food Politics, Marion Nestle (2002) documents how the food industry influences government agencies and food science and nutrition professionals not to discourage people from "eating more" (and especially eating more highly processed foods). She points out that "eat less" or "bad food" messages are strenuously resisted, instantly mobilizing not only the opposition of agribusiness/food industry lobbyists, but also the US Department of Agriculture (whose job is also, ironically, to set nutritional guidelines).

A better way: humane and sustainable food systems
A variety of individuals and institutions are choosing food that is more humane and sustainable. It is estimated that nearly 68 million Americans are consciously adopting more healthy and sustainable lifestyles, with food as a primary concern (see Jane Goodall's chapter from Harvest for Hope, p. 25). Community gardens, community supported agriculture, farmers' markets, co-ops, and certification systems (that are humane, organic, fair trade, farm worker supportive) provide some of the infrastructure needed for a better way, one that can produce ample amounts of wholesome and affordable food, especially when the hidden costs of industrial agriculture are factored in.
But what guidelines should we follow in making our food choices, whether as individuals or institutions? How can we eat in ways that better support farmers and food system workers, protect the environment and public health, treat animals humanely, and provide food security for all?

A variety of organizations have developed and adopted guiding principles for their food choices including faith-based communities, institutions of higher education, and third-party certification organizations working with business and government. The Earth Charter meal (p. 34) demonstrates the linkage of one integrated ethical framework to specific guidelines for what (and how) we eat. The Sacred Foods Project (Fall 2006, p. 7) emphasizes eight dimensions that reflect the nature of sacred foods, which it is linking to a variety of certification alternatives. Institutions of higher education offer contexts for modeling best practices as well as research and resources to build applicable programs and extend civic engagement into our food system (Fall 2006, pp. 11-17). Third-party certification and sustainable sourcing criteria from the Food Alliance offers support and a clear process for ensuring accountability to standards developed in contractual arrangements through a systems approach toward defining sustainable food (see "Guidelines and Certification: A Forum," Fall 2006, p.17).

Shifting practice and policy to strengthen humane and sustainable food systems
Three major tasks are required to change individual and institutional behavior to support a more humane and sustainable food system. These include informing and mobilizing individuals and institutions, promoting appropriate policies, and providing the necessary educational resources to make these shifts possible.

1. Inform and mobilize individual and institutional consumers to buy humane sustainable food. Individuals and institutions need to be reflecting on the kind of food choices they would make if they were supporting poverty eradication, worker well-being, strong rural communities, and environmental and animal protection. Opportunities for this kind of engagement are particularly strong in the education and faith sectors.

2. Promote food, agriculture and development policies that strengthen "pro-poor," humane and sustainable food systems. Examples of policy priorities include: internalizing environmental costs-as well as health, safety, and animal welfare costs-in the price of agricultural prod-ucts; adopting policies and regulations (zoning, taxation, and so on) to bring waste production and airborne emissions in line with the absorptive capacity of the surrounding land and local and global atmosphere; and establishing subsidy and legal frameworks that strengthen pro-poor humane sustainable agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN identifies the following international policy priorities:

Without pro-poor policies that deliberately promote the potential for poverty reduction, small producers and poor communities who have depended on livestock production are likely to be excluded. Industrial livestock operations can often exploit economies of scale. Eliminating subsidies for concentrate feeds, chemical fertilizers, non-renewable energy sources and other inputs used mainly by industrial producers can help level the playing field. Once subsidies and other market distortions that favor large producers have been eliminated, it turns out that small farmers and livestock keepers can often produce animals at competitive prices. When policies promote access to information, training and processing facilities, cooperatives and contract farming can provide smallholders with footholds in rapidly growing and changing markets (FAO, 2006).

Within the US, the 2007 Farm Bill offers the most significant opportunity to shift the system of federal regulation, incentives, and subsidies that for the last 40 years has exclusively favored growth of the industrial agribusiness complex. Strong pressure to focus on critical public health issues, the environment, and subsidy reform in the new Farm Bill may weaken industrial agriculture and, in particular, CAFOs in the US and abroad (see article on the Farm Bill, Fall 2006, p.22).

3. Develop the infrastructure and capacity for a humane, sustainable food system. A variety of resources are required to meet the needs of different sectors. Within the farming sector, we must promote infrastructure for rural smallholders, such as marketing cooperatives, agriculture extension services, and women's land ownership. Within educational and religious institutions, we must develop both formal and informal curriculum modules and courses and partner with leaders and practitioners in these sectors to disseminate the materials.

This and the next issue (Fall 2006) of Earth Ethics are organized into five major sections. The first provides a background on our food and agriculture system and highlights the dangers of industrial agriculture. The second section looks closely at the Earth Charter and its relevance to food, from a scholarly analysis of specific principles to the enactment of an "Earth Charter meal." The meal is described in the context of an Earth Charter event in Amsterdam and as part of a program at Florida Gulf Coast University. The third section looks at the faith sector: Michael Schut's article asks what it means for an individual to make food choices from a Christian perspective with a special focus on genetically modified (GM) foods; the Sacred Foods Project demonstrates how an interfaith partnership can organize to change wider practice and policy. The fourth section offers three examples of how higher education institutions can contribute to a more sustainable food system, including the University of California system, Portland State University, and the University of New Hampshire. The fifth section introduces a series of guidelines and certification systems to promote food production and consumption that are healthy and humane. It also explores the policy changes necessary to build a sustainable food system for the long-term. The next issue ends with an extensive list of published and online resources to assist individuals and institutions in further investigation and action.

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Dr. Richard M. Clugston is executive director of the Center for Respect of Life and Environment (CRLE), and publisher and editor of Earth Ethics. He directs the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) and is on the Earth Charter International Council of Trustees.

Wynn Calder is associate director of CRLE and ULSF.

1 This term refers to the successful efforts on the part of fast-food chains, such as McDonald's, to encourage people to consume ever larger portions of food and drink for only a small increase in cost.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2006. Diabetes: Disabling Disease to Double by 2050.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2006. "Right Agriculture Policies Can Promote Healthy Diets." May 18.

Horrigan, L., R. S. Lawrence, and P. Walker. 2002. "How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture." Environmental Health Perspectives 110(5): 445-6.

Manning, R. 2004. "The Oil We Eat." Harper's Magazine. February 2004. See

Nestle, M. 2002. Food Politics. University of California Press.

Nierenberg, D. 2005. Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry. Worldwatch Paper 171.

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press.

Sale, K. 1986. Human Scale. New York: Cowan, McCowan, and Geoghegan.

Sierra Club. 2006. Clean Water and Factory Farms.

United States Department of Agriculture National Commission on Small Farms. 1998. A Time to Act. Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms. See



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