Tom Philpott

Why Commodity Farming Is a Tough Row to Hoe

| Thu Sep. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In yesterday's post, I explained that large agribusiness corporations largely avoid the task of actually growing food, leaving it mainly to family-owned farm enterprises. Why would they do that?

In short, it's because most farmers grow commodities—and the laws of supply and demand make it virtually impossible to earn big profits from them.

Consider the cases of corn and soy. Together, the two crops take up more than half of US farmland and serve as the raw materials for nearly our entire food industry, providing everything from livestock feed to fats, sweeteners, and a litany of ingredients. (And that's not to mention their newly prominent role in fueling our cars.)

A lot of people see the big-time corn and soy farmers of the Midwest as fat cats, harvesting big bucks from on high in their vast, high-tech combines. Yet even with crop subsidies and government-backed insurance, large-scale farming in the Corn Belt is a pretty awful business. Get a load of the below chart, recently promoted by Big Picture Agriculture and taken from a recent paper by Iowa State University economist Chad Hart. The blue line represents how much Iowa farmers get paid for their corn, while the red line tracks what it costs them to grow it: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, land rents, etc.

From "Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective," by Chad Hart of Iowa State University

Note how, over the past 30 years, the red line often creeps above or intersects with the blue one. Each place that happens shows a time when farmers lost money or just broke even. If you want a longer view, the USDA has one for you, though note that the blue-red color coding is reversed in this one:

Maybe you think corn must be a loss leader, an off-year filler for its rotation-mate, soybeans, which rake in big profits? Not the case. Again, where the red line trends above the blue are times farmers lost money, on average:

From "Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective," by Chad Hart of Iowa State University

What gives? Hart puts the story in devastating terms (emphasis added):

Agricultural returns tend to be cyclical in nature, a few years of good returns followed by a few years of negative returns. That is the inherent nature of agriculture; it is a competitive industry. And economic theory indicates the long run profitability of a competitive industry is zero. So we should expect some negative years to balance out the recent good run.

Zero long-run profitability—that's a bracing thought when you're thinking of, say, passing a farm operation on to your kids. Farming is hypercompetitive, especially if you're operating in what economists call commodity markets—that is, producing a crop that's functionally indistinguishable from that of your competitors.

The nice woman selling you tomatoes at the farmers market has all manner of ways of distinguishing her product—she's offering such-and-such varieties, grown by this or that method, on some particular piece of land. And she has a range of customers—the teeming hordes of individuals who stream into farmers markets these days—to whom she can make her pitch. The customers may be price-conscious, but they came to the farmers market because they have more than just price in mind: Some combination of quality, locality, aversion to chemicals or what have you all factor into each buyer's decision.

Now consider the farmer with 5,000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa. His products are essentially identical to those of hundreds of thousands of similar farmers—and not just in the US corn belt, but also in places like Brazil and Argentina. Their products won't be sold to individual consumers. They'll be mixed together and processed industrially and end up as, say, livestock feed, car fuel, or cooking oil.

And there aren't a lot of large-scale buyers out there to give the farmers options. Let's say you've got a bin-busting harvest of soybeans to sell. Who are you going to turn to? This soybean-industry document has answers:

Source: "How the Global Oilseed and Grain Trade Works," 2011, prepared for the United Soybean Board and the US Soybean Export Council.

Note that just three companies control over two-thirds of US soybean processing; five control 85 percent of it. Similar conditions hold true in corn, as this document from the ace University of Missouri researcher and ag industry expert Mary Hendrickson shows.

The global trade in grain (a category that includes corn and wheat) is even more concentrated. According to a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek, a similar set of companies—Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, and Glencore Xstrata—"now control almost all the available grain handling assets in the world." Unlike your farmers market shopper, these massive buyers want uniformity and low prices above all else—and they have the buying power to wring what they want out of their suppliers, i.e., farmers.

As the charts up top showed, corn and soy prices stayed pretty steady until around 2005, when they began an upward swing, borne up by the government-backed corn ethanol boom. Those charts also show that around the same time, farmers' costs also began to creep higher.

Farmers have to buy all kinds of stuff to keep churning out those crops—fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, fuel. All of those make up the "production costs" line in those corn and soy charts. And as the charts show, they typically rise and fall with crop prices, keeping profit margins thin (or outright negative). If you drill down into recent prices for those major agricultural inputs, you'll see the rises that are eating away at farmers' profits.

Check out what has happened to the prices farmers pay for the synthetic nitrogen and mined phosphate and potash they use to fertilize their fields:

Again, fertilizer production is controlled by a small handful of companies. Take synthetic nitrogen—a fertilizer much beloved by most commodity corn farmers. Ammonia is the main ingredient in the nitrogen fertilizer farmers spread on fields. Four transnational companies—CF Industries, Koch Nitrogen, PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer, and Terra Industries—generate 72 percent of the ammonia produced in the United States, according to a December 2009 report from the industry research group IFDC. Another major nitrogen fertilizer product is urea, which is used both on farm fields and as a cheap protein enhancer in cow feed. For urea, those same four companies control nearly 84.8 percent of the market, IFDC figures show.

Then there's seeds. Here's the New York Times in 2010:

"Such price increases for seeds," the Times reported, "are part of an unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it." Biotech and agrochemical giants  DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow took over the seed market in that period—their seeds now account for more than 80 percent of corn acreage, and 70 percent of soy acreage:

 Source: Agweb.com

The great bulk of the seeds proffered by these dominant companies are engineered to withstand herbicides—which has given rise to a plague of herbicide-resistant weeds, and thus adding to farmers expenses in another way: by prompting them to use ever-more chemical herbicides. Here's a chart from Food and Water Watch showing that rise:

Food and Water Watch

Then there's fungicides, another mounting expense in corn country. As I wrote in a recent post:

While the pesticide industry doesn't release use data, the market research firm Lucintel recently estimated that the global fungicide market will increase at an annual compounded rate of 6.7 percent over the next five years. "North America witnessed the highest growth during the last five years and is expected to lead the industry during 2012 to 2017," Lucintel added.

Finally, there's land costs. When crop prices go up, farmland becomes more valuable, and landlords jack up rent. And rent is a significant cost to many farm operations. According to the USDA, 40 percent of US farmland is rented. Here's the Federal Reserve on land rents in its 7th District, which encompasses farm-heavy Iowa and similar swaths of Illinois and Wisconsin. Note that rents have nearly doubled, in inflation-adjusted terms, since the mid-2000s:

US Federal Reserve

So, while the last seven or so years have been relatively fat ones for US commodity farmers, now crop prices are coming down. Predictably, farmers—here in the United States and also in Brazil, that emerging industrial-agriculture powerhouse—have responded to high prices for corn and soy by planting more of both. As those fields fill out, the market is behaving as you'd expect: As the blue and red charts at the very top of this post show, the "price" and "cost" lines for the two crops are, once again, converging rapidly. As Iowa State's Hart puts it, "We should expect some negative years to balance out the recent good run"—and through subsidies programs, including subsidized crop insurance, taxpayers will be on the hook to make up the difference.

Commodity farming is a terrible business for farmers, but a vital one. Societies can't function without the food security represented by large stocks of shelf-stable crops like grains and oilseeds. And commodity farming, with its long-term zero profitability, can't really function without public support. These days, that public support is geared in a way that works extremely well for the input suppliers—the handful of companies that provide the ever-pricier seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. In a follow-up piece—as Congress yet again tries to cobble together the next farm bill, which governs US ag policy—I'll sketch out a way that farm policy could be used to benefit farmers, the environment, and the public at large.

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Does "Corporate Farming" Exist? Barely.

| Wed Sep. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Goaded on by small-is-good gospel, plenty of people have adopted a Manichean view of modern US farming: large, soulless corporate enterprises on one side, human-scale, artisanal operations on the other.

Take, for example, Chipotle's much-discussed new web ad, which tugs at the heartstrings by painting a haunting picture of a small-time farmer who finds himself working for—and then competing against—a fictional industrial-farming behemoth.

Reality is a lot more complicated. While there are plenty of mega-corporations in the food industry, they rarely do the actual farming themselves.

A USDA study released in August found that 96.4 percent of US crop farms are "family farms," or "ones in which the principal operator, and people related to the principal operator by blood or marriage, own more than half." That number doesn't leave a lot of room for corporate farmers, does it?

The story is a bit—but not that much—different in meat production. Pork, and pork only, actually has corporations raising significant numbers of livestock. Here are the largest hog producers in the United States, lifted from an interesting 2010 paper by Tufts University researchers Tim Wise and Sarah Trist:

Wise and Trist, 2010

Smithfield, recently bought by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui International (in a deal just approved by Smithfield's shareholders), is obviously a massive, globe-spanning corporation. Not only does it raise about 1 in 5 American hogs, it also has a 31 percent share of the hog-processing market, Wise and Trist show. When Smithfield directly raises 1.2 million hogs per year, that's corporate farming.

But after Smithfield, things change quickly. As the above chart shows, the nation's fourth-largest hog producer, Iowa Select Farms, has a 2.5 percent market share. Yes, that's a lot of hogs—150,000 per year, to be exact—but the vast majority of America's other 70,000 pig farms tend to be family-owned operations. It's true that they usually operate under contract with mega-processors like Smithfield and peers like Tyson and JBS. But these aren't corporate-owned farms.

In beef, the last stage of conventional cow production—fattening them for slaughter—is largely dominated by big players. Here (from a 2010 paper by Texas Tech University ag scientist M. L. Galyean) are the biggest operators of feedlots—those massive, infamous pens where cows spend their last days chomping on corn and soy-based feed, laced with dodgy additives:

Galyean, ‎2011

And here are the dominant processors, the corporations that slaughter the fattened cows and cut them into beef (note how Cargill and JBS appear on both lists):

But again, the farms that supply the feedlots—that raise the calves until they are ready to be fattened in those corporate-run confined finishing operations—are almost exclusively family-owned businesses, as this 2011 USDA paper shows. And there are more than 700,000 of them.

As for chicken, the USDA counts more than 17,000 operations producing "broilers," or meat chickens. Very few of them are owned by companies like Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (a JBS subsidiary), or Perdue—the mega-processors that slaughter and package most birds. According to the USDA, farms directly owned by those giants account for just 1 percent of total broiler production. The bulk of the rest are family-owned, albeit working under contract to a big processor:

Chart: USDA

So what's going on here—why is the perception of "corporate farming" so widespread when actually almost all of the country's food is being grown or raised by family-owned operations?

It might have something to do with the fact that corporate agribusiness is indeed very real—it's just that it has carved out the most profitable parts of food production for itself, while leaving the dirty, uncertain work of farming for others.

The reality is that farming itself is generally a terrible business. There's much more—and much easier—money to be made by selling farmers the raw materials of their trade—like seeds, fertilizer, or livestock feed. And there's also plenty of money in buying farmers' output cheap (say, corn or hogs) and selling it dear (as, say, pork chops or high-fructose corn syrup). In his excellent 2004 book Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning pungently describes the situation:

A farm scholar once asked an agribusiness executive when his corporation would simply take over the farms. The exec said that it would be dumb for the corporation to do so, in that it is not free to exploit its employees to the degree that farmers are willing to exploit themselves.

Tomorrow, I'll lay out, with charts, just how tough it is for farmers caught between the huge corporate suppliers and the huge corporate buyers.

CDC Reveals Scary Truth About Factory Farms and Superbugs

| Wed Sep. 18, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go to livestock farms. Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant pathogens affecting people are on the rise. Is there a connection here? No need for alarm, insists the National Pork Producers Council. Existing regulations "provide adequate safeguards against antibiotic resistance," the group insists on its site.  It even enlists the Centers for Disease Control in its effort to show that "animal antibiotic use is safe for everyone," claiming that the CDC has found "no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals."

So move along, nothing to see here, right? Not so fast. On Monday, the CDC came out with a new report called "Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013," available here.  And far from exonerating the meat industry and its voracious appetite for drugs, the report spotlights it as a driver of resistance. Check out the left side of this infographic drawn from the report:

CDC

Note the text on the bottom: "These drugs should be only used to treat infections." Compare that to the National Pork Producers Council's much more expansive conception of proper uses of antibiotics in livestock facilities: "treatment of illness, prevention of disease, control of disease, and nutritional efficiency of animals." Dosing animals with daily hits of antibiotics to prevent disease only makes sense, of course, if you're keeping animals on an industrial scale.

The CDC report lays out a couple of specific pathogens whose spread among people is driven by farm practices. Drug-resistant campylobacter causes 310,000 infections per year, resulting in 28 deaths, the report states. The agency's recommendations for reducing those numbers is blunt:

• Avoiding inappropriate antibiotic use in food animals.

• Tracking antibiotic use in different types of food animals.

• Stopping spread of Campylobacter among animals on farms.

• Improving food production and processing to reduce contamination.

• Educating consumers and food workers about safe food handling

practices.

Then there's drug-resistant salmonella, which infects 100,000 people each year and kills 38, CDC reports. The agency lists a similar set of regulations—including  "Avoiding inappropriate antibiotic use in food animals"—for reversing the rising trend of resistance in salmonella.

Finally, there's Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which racks up 80,461 "severe" cases per year and kills a mind-numbing 11,285 people annually. The CDC report doesn't link MRSA to livestock production, but it does note that the number of cases of MRSA caught during hospital stays has plunged in recent years, while "rates of MRSA infections have increased rapidly among the general population (people who have not recently received care in a healthcare setting)."

Why are so many people coming down with MRSA who have not had recent contact with hospitals? Increasing evidence points to factory-scale hog facilities as a source. In a recent study, a team of researchers led by University of Iowa's Tara Smith found MRSA in 8.5 percent of pigs on conventional farms and no pigs on antibiotic-free farms. Meanwhile, a study just released by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who live near hog farms or places where hog manure is applied as fertilizer have a much greater risk of contracting MRSA. Former Mother Jones writer Sarah Zhang summed up the study like this for Nature:

The team analyzed cases of two different types of MRSA — community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA), which affected 1,539 patients, and health-care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA), which affected 1,335 patients. (The two categories refer to where patients acquire the infection as well as the bacteria’s genetic lineages, but the distinction has grown fuzzier as more patients bring MRSA in and out of the hospital.) Then the researchers examined whether infected people lived near pig farms or agricultural land where pig manure was spread. They found that people who had the highest exposure to manure—calculated on the basis of how close they lived to farms, how large the farms were and how much manure was used—were 38% more likely to get CA-MRSA and 30% more likely to get HA-MRSA.

In short, the meat industry's protestations aside, livestock production is emerging as a vital engine for the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. Perhaps the scariest chart in the whole report is this one—showing that once we generate pathogens that can withstand all the antibiotics currently on the market, there are very few new antibiotics on the horizon that can fill the breach—the pharma industry just isn't investing in R&D for new ones.

CDC

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration rolled out proposed new rules for antibiotic uses on farms. At the time I found them wanting, because they include a massive loophole: They would phase out growth promotion as a legitimate use for antibiotics, but still accept disease prevention as a worthy reason for feeding them to animals. As I wrote at the time, "The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics preventively and go on about its business—continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to menace public health by breeding resistance." To repeat the CDC's phrase from its new report, "These drugs should be only used to treat infections." Worse, the FDA's new rules would be purely voluntary, relying on the pharma and meat industries to self-regulate.

Nearly a year and a half later, the FDA still hasn't moved to initiate even that timid step in the right direction. Perhaps the CDC's blunt reckoning will provide sufficient motivation.

Fewer Chicken Inspectors and More Chickens?

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Evisceration of turkey carcasses at slaughterhouse

Last week, amid chaos over Syria and the ongoing budget fight in Washington, the General Accountability Office released a report about a project dear to the US Department of Agriculture: proposed new rules that would slash the number of federal inspectors that oversee poultry kill lines, and allow those lines to speed up.

The report didn't make many waves in a stuffed-to-bursting news week—though the Washington Post's excellent Kimberly Kindy did her best to get the word out. But I hope the GAO's critique breaks the Obama administration's apparent zeal to push through the new inspection.

The fewer inspectors/faster line approach is the result of a long-running USDA pilot program called HACCP-based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP—one that, in a few select poultry plants, relies on antimicrobial sprays and company-paid inspections to maintain food safety, and deemphasizes the role of federal inspectors. The Bush Administration flirted with rolling out HIMP industry-wide in 2002, but pulled back. Evidently, Obama and his deregulatory-minded advisers couldn't resist it. They claim it would save the poultry industry—dominated by Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Perdue, and Sanderson—more than $256 million per year by letting plants speed up production, and save the federal budget a piddling $30 million per year.

"The inspection category that had the highest error rate was for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass."

The USDA has insisted that the novel inspection regime would improve the safety of the chicken and turkey cranked out by industrial-scale slaughterhouses, but it has never made a convincing case on this score, nor answered disturbing questions raised by Food and Water Watch's analysis of documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act on the pilot plants. (I summarized FWW's findings here. Spoiler: "Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4' for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.")  

So what does the GAO report make of the USDA's justification for the new rules? The USDA has not "thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of its pilot projects over time, even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects," GAO complained. To justify its rollout, it used patchy and sometimes wildly outdated data. The USDA's analysis of the program relied on "snapshots of data for two 2-year periods instead of data for the duration of the pilot project, which has been ongoing for more than a decade." And in its 2012 cost-benefit analysis, the USDA relied on data from a 2001 survey of pilot poultry plants—and 20-plus-year-old data about economic conditions in the industry, the GAO states.

On the key question of whether the new system would actually improve food safety, as the USDA insists, the GAO says the department hasn't been transparent on how it came to that conclusion. "We were unable to determine if the results of [the USDA's] risk assessment accurately stated the public health benefits in the proposed rule because the risk assessment did not include sufficient detail about its methodology," the report states.

Poultry line workers "endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems."

The GAO also chastises the USDA for applying its flawed assessment of the chicken pilot plants to turkey plants, even though "there is no report evaluating the pilot project at young turkey plants."

As for the workers who would have to conduct constant repetitive motions involving sharp knives and copious antimicrobial sprays, all under sped-up conditions, the GAO auditors weren't charged with assessing that aspect of the new plan. The report does state that faster line speeds raise "concerns" about worker safety. But as the Southern Poverty Law Center showed in a damning recent report, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor the USDA has an explicit mandate to protect poultry workers from faster kill lines. This, even though at current speeds, poultry line workers "endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems." For a 2013 report, inspectors from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health visited a South Carolina poultry plant to check out worker safety conditions at current lines speeds. They found that "most employees reported multiple musculoskeletal symptoms."

In short, the Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis—and one that largely omits the impact on workers of higher lines speeds. Indeed, of all the Obama administration's disappointing moves on agriculture policy—the appointment of agrichemical industry types to key policy positions, the approval of dodgy GMO crops, the failed attempts to stand up to the meat and seed industries—the most craven of all may be the aggressive push to make these changes.

And while the USDA, which is tasked with ensuring the safety of meat products, is spearheading the effort, there's never been any doubt about its origin: the White House. In January 2012, when the USDA first floated the proposal, the department noted in the Federal Register that "[t]his proposed rule is a result of the Agency's 2011 regulatory review efforts conducted under Executive Order 13563 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review." Executive Order 13563, issued by President Obama in January 2011, "orders government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive," as the president himself put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time.

Not surprisingly, Big Chicken vigorously supports the proposed changes. Meanwhile, last week, a coalition of 15 worker-justice groups presented the USDA with a petition demanding that the agency move in the opposite direction with regard to line speeds at poultry plants: to slow them down to protect workers, not speed them up to please industry. That seems doubtful, though—in a blog post last week, Al Almanza, administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, doubled down. "If finalized and implemented broadly, this new inspection system would enable FSIS to better fulfill our food safety mission," he insisted.

This article has been revised.

Half of China's Antibiotics Now Go to Livestock

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Newsflash, from a recent Public Radio International report: China's teeming factory meat farms have a drug problem. To make animals grow quickly under cramped, feces-ridden conditions, animals there get fed small, doses of antibiotics—creating ideal breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens that threaten people.

A research team led by scientists from China and Michigan State University recently found "diverse and abundant antibiotic resistance genes in Chinese swine farms," as the title of the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, put it. According to a recent analysis by a Beijing-based agribusiness consulting firm, more than half of total Chinese antibiotic consumption goes to livestock.

The trouble, of course, is that by scaling up and concentrating meat production and fueling the process with antibiotics, China's emerging meat industrialists are merely following the US model. It is shocking that half of China's antibiotic use takes places on farms—but here in the United States, livestock operations suck in a staggering 77 percent of total antibiotic use. It's worth reprinting this Pew Charitable Trust chart I dropped into a post on this topic in February:

Pew

Now, it's hard to compare the US and China numbers precisely. The ratio of farm-to-human use of antibiotics obviously tell us as much about trends in human antibiotic use as they do about farm use. As the chart above shows, US antibiotic consumption for medicinal purposes has held steady for a decade. Meanwhile, Time reported last year, per capita human antibiotic use is 10 times higher in China than in the United States, and "70 percent of inpatients at Chinese hospitals received antibiotics; the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a maximum of 30 percent." So one reason a lower percentage of antibiotics go to farms in China is because so damned much is being used for human medicine there.

But there's no doubt that both nations are shoveling massive amounts of antibiotics into livestock farms—a trend that coincides with the industrialization and scaling up of those farms.

Take poultry. The following chart gives a good indication how the US poultry industry has been dramatically concentrated into fewer and fewer large operations. Note that as recently as 1950, 80 percent of US farms kept chickens—farms at that time tended to be diversified operations that mixed crops and livestock. Thereafter, the percentage of farms keeping a flock began to decline dramatically, and by 1992, less than 6 percent did. Meanwhile, of course, US chicken production was expanding dramatically, meaning those remaining chicken farms tended to be massive operations.

USDA

 

And here's one from the Pew Environment Group's blockbuster 2011 report "Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America." Note that between 1950 and 2007, the number of US farms keeping chickens dropped by 98 percent, even as the total number of chickens produced increased by a factor of 15. (A a "brolier" is a chicken grown for meat rather than eggs.)

 

Pew Environment Group

What caused the shift in 1950? One major factor was the introduction of routine antibiotics. As USDA researchers put it in this report, scientists in the 1940s and '50s discovered that small doses of antibiotics made animals grow faster. "Not only did antibiotics serve as growth stimulants, they had great value in disease control," the USDA report states. "This enabled flocks to be grown in confinement."

And this development, of course, helped give rise to the vertically integrated chicken industry we know today, dominated at the top by giant processing firms Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (owned by the Brazilian meat giant JBS), and Perdue. These companies tightly concentrate what was once the nationally dispersed activity of chicken production—and the pollution it gives rise to—into a few Southeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

And Chinese environmental activists should read it closely, because something similar is afoot in China today. The nation still has lots and lots of small chicken producers—as in the mid-century United States, diversified operations featuring a mix of crops and livestock. But as the USDA recently reported, China is shifting toward "larger-sized and more standardized commercial [poultry] production," adding the following chart to illustrate. Note the slow erosion of small operations, and the explosive growth of ones featuring 100,000 or more birds.

USDA

So China appears to be where the United States was in the 1960s—early in the process of wiping out small poultry farms in favor of massive ones. Interestingly, the same US meat giant giant that spearheaded that process here, Tyson, is helping the process along in China, too. (See this classic 1994 New York Times piece on "How Tyson Became the Chicken King.")

According to its website, Tyson operates four large-scale poultry operations in the country, including a "fully integrated poultry complex with live production operations and processing capacity." Here's more:

The company operates the entire live production chain, including breeder production, hatchery, broiler and feed production. At Tyson Nantong, we've built modern farm and processing facilities according to our rigorous global food production standards.

According to a May article in the US trade publication WattAgNet, Tyson hopes to leverage recent avian-flu scares in China to increase its market share there:

Tyson Foods has implemented strong biosecurity measures to help quell these [avian flu] concerns. Tyson is continuing plans to develop its own growout houses in China, rather than buying birds from outside sources…

"We believe our modern methods and processes will make our chicken the preferred product and we'll be in a position to benefit in the long-term," said [Tyson Foods Chief Operating Officer Jim] Lochner.

Similar trends hold in pork—the US pork industry scaled up and industrialized hog production, driven in part by antibiotic-laced feed. US-grown retail pork routinely tests positive for antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

And now China is following suit. The recently proposed, still-pending sale of US pork giant Smithfield to the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui has generated plenty of attention (including from me). But China has been steadily scaling up its own pork industry for a decade. Long before its proposed sellout to Shuanghui, Smithfield had a relationship with another sprawling Chinese food-processing company, Cofco. Back in 2008, Cofco bought 5 percent of Smithfield's shares, with the explicit goal goal of bringing US-style hog production techniques to China. "We hope we will learn from Smithfield its technology and management advantages in the production chain from livestock breeding to quarantine to consumer table," a Cofco spokesperson told Reuters at the time.

Meanwhile, Chinese pork farming is changing rapidly. As recently as 2001, an analysis by the Dutch bank Rabobank found about three-quarters of China's hogs came from small backyard operations. By 2010, that figure had fallen by half—and the percentage of its hog supply emerging from factory-like facilities tripled, reaching 15 percent.

All of which brings us back to that study by Chinese and Michigan State University researchers—the one that found "diverse and abundant antibiotic resistance genes in Chinese swine farms." Can that be any surprise, given that China is transforming its meat production after the US model?

The Real Reason Kansas Is Running Out of Water

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

How to make an arid region bloom: irrigated farm plots (between 0.5 and 1 mile in diameter) over the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas.

Like dot-com moguls in the '90s and real estate gurus in the 2000s, farmers in western Kansas are enjoying the fruits of a bubble: Their crop yields have been boosted by a gusher of soon-to-vanish irrigation water. That's the message of a new study by Kansas State University researchers. Drawing down their region's groundwater at more than six times the natural rate of recharge, farmers there have managed to become so productive that the area boasts "the highest total market value of agriculture products" of any congressional district in the nation, the authors note. Those products are mainly beef fattened on large feedlots; and the corn used to fatten those beef cows.

But they're on the verge of essentially sucking dry a large swath of the High Plains Aquifer, one of the United States' greatest water resources. The researchers found that 30 percent of the region's groundwater has been tapped out, and if present trends continue, another 39 percent will be gone within 50 years. As the water stock dwindles, of course, pumping what's left gets more and more expensive—and farming becomes less profitable and ultimately uneconomical. But all isn't necessarily lost. The authors calculate that if the region's farmers can act collectively and cut their water use 20 percent now, their farms would produce less and generate lower profits in the short term, but could sustain corn and beef farming in the area into the next century.

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Your Steak Is Addicted to Drugs

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
A cattle feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colo.

Meatpacking giant Tyson recently grabbed headlines when it announced it would no longer buy and slaughter cows treated with a growth-enhancing drug called Zilmax, made by pharma behemoth Merck. Tyson made the move based on "animal well-being" concerns, it told its cattle suppliers in a letter, adding that "there have been recent instances of cattle delivered for processing that have difficulty walking or are unable to move." According to the Wall Street journal, Zilmax (active ingredient: zilpaterol hydrochloride) and similar growth promotors are banned in the European Union, China, and Russia.

The news sent shock waves through the beef industry. Merck denied any problems with its drug but announced it would temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada pending a "scientific audit" of the product, which generated $159 million in US and Canadian sales in 2012, Merck added. Soon after, Tyson rivals JBS, Cargill, and National Beefpacking announced that they, too, would stop accepting Zilmax-treated cattle for slaughter, pending Merck's review.

Together, Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National slaughter and pack more than 80 percent of the beef cows raised in the United States, according to University of Missouri researcher Mary Hendrickson (PDF). If they stick to their refusal to buy cows treated with the drug, it's hard to see how Zilmax has a future on America's teeming cattle feedlots. Is the US beef industry turning away from the practice of turning to drugs to fatten its cattle?

Not so fast. Rather than wean themselves from growth promoters, the companies that produce cows to supply the likes of Tyson and JBS are instead shifting rapidly to a rival beta-agonist, this one from pharma giant Eli Lilly, called Optaflexx. The suspension of Zilmax sales has caused such a "surge in demand" for rival Optaflexx that "Lilly is telling some new customers it cannot immediately supply them," Reuters reported.

6 Mind-Boggling Facts About Farms in China

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Ever since May, when a Chinese company agreed to buy US pork giant Smithfield, reportedly with an eye toward ramping up US pork imports to China, I've been looking into the simultaneously impressive and vexed state of China's food production system. In short, I've found that in the process of emerging as the globe's manufacturing center—the place that provides us with everything from the simplest of brooms to the smartest of phones—China has severely damaged its land and water resources, compromising its ability to increase food production even as its economy thunders along (though it's been a bit less thunderous lately), its population grows (albeit slowly), and its people gain wealth, move up the food chain, and demand ever-more meat.

Now, none of that should detract from the food miracle that China has enacted since it began its transformation into an industrial powerhouse in the late 1970s. This 2013 report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brims with data on this feat. The nation slashed its hunger rate—from 20 percent of its population in 1990 to 12 percent today —by quietly turbocharging its farms. China's total farm output, a broad measure of food churned out, has tripled since 1978. The ramp-up in livestock production in particular is even more dizzying—it rose by a factor of five. Overall, China's food system represents a magnificent achievement: It feeds nearly a quarter of the globe's people on just 7 percent of its arable land.

Did Berkeley Defund a High-Profile Pesticide Researcher? (UPDATED)

| Sat Aug. 17, 2013 8:58 AM EDT
Tyrone Hayes

Darnell lives deep in the basement of a life sciences building at the University of California-Berkeley, in a plastic tub on a row of stainless steel shelves. He is an African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, sometimes called the lab rat of amphibians. Like most of his species, he's hardy and long-lived, an adept swimmer, a poor crawler, and a voracious eater. He's a good breeder, too, having produced both children and grandchildren. There is, however, one unusual thing about Darnell.

He's female.

Thus began Dashka Slater's feature in the Jan./Feb. 2012 Mother Jones on Tyrone Hayes, the University of California/Berkeley biologist who has done groundbreaking research suggesting that atrazine, a widely used herbicide, can literally change frogs' gender, even at at tiny exposure levels—a finding atrazine's maker, Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, vigorously denies. This week, Darnell and other frogs under Hayes' care have suffered another indignity, according to Hayes: he reportedly told The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall-protected) that the university has cut off funding for his Berkeley lab. "We're dead in the water," Hayes told the Chronicle. He is now without funds "needed to pay for basic functional operations, such as the care of test animals," the magazine reports. The university denies it has taken any action to defund Hayes—a spokesperson "suggested the possibility that he simply ran out of money," the Chronicle reports.

Why This Year's Gulf Dead Zone Is Twice As Big As Last Year's

| Wed Aug. 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Dead Sea scrolls: In the red part, "habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts," NOAA says.

First, the good news: The annual "dead zone" that smothers much of the northern Gulf of Mexico—caused by an oxygen-sucking algae bloom mostly fed by Midwestern farm runoff—is smaller this year than scientists had expected. In the wake of heavy spring rains, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been projecting 2013's fish-free region of the Gulf to be at least 7,286 square miles and as large as 8,561 square miles—somewhere between the size of New Jersey on the low end to New Hampshire on the high end. Instead, NOAA announced, it has clocked in at 5,840 square miles—a bit bigger than Connecticut. It's depicted in the above graphic.

Now, for the bad news: This year's "biological desert" (NOAA's phrase) is much bigger than last year's, below, which was relatively tiny because Midwestern droughts limited the amount of runoff that made it into the Gulf. At about 2,900 square miles, the 2012 edition measured up to be about a third as large as Delaware.

 NOAA. Data source: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)

Smaller than expected though it may be, this year's model is still more than twice as large as NOAA's targeted limit of less than 2,000 square miles. Here's how recent dead zones stack up—note that the NOAA target has been met only once since 1990. Low years, like 2012 and 2009, tend to marked by high levels of drought, and high years, like 2008, by heavy rains and flooding.

Dead zones over time NOAA

Why such massive annual dead zones? It's a matter of geography and concentration and intensification of fertilizer-dependent agriculture. Note that an enormous swath of the US landmass—41 percent of it—drains into the Mississippi River basin, as shown below. It's true that even under natural conditions, a river that captures as much drainage as the Mississippi is going to deliver some level of nutrients to the sea, which in turn will generate at least some algae. But when US Geological Survey researchers looked at the fossil record in 2006, they found that major hypoxia events (the technical name for dead zones) were relatively rare until around 1950—and have been increasingly common ever since. The mid-20th century is also when farmers turned to large-scale use of synthetic fertilizers. Now as much a part of Mississippi Delta life as crawfish boils, the Gulf dead zone wasn't even documented as a phenomenon until 1972, according to NOAA.

Source: LUMCON

 

The very same land mass that drains into the Gulf is also the site of an enormous amount of agriculture. The vast majority of US corn production—which uses titanic amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, the two main nutrients behind the dead zone—occurs there.

US Department of Agriculture

The region is also where we shunt much of our factory-scale meat farms. This Food and Water Watch map depicts concentration of beef cow, dairy, hog, chicken, and egg farms—the redder, the more concentrated.

Big Ag interests like to deflect blame for the annual dead zone, claiming that other factors, like runoff from lawns and municipal sewage, drive it. But the US Geological Service has traced flows of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Gulf, and there's no denying the link to farming. "In total, agricultural sources contribute more than 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf, versus only 9 to 12% from urban sources," the USGS reports.

The Gulf of Mexico isn't the only water body that bears the brunt of our concentrated ag production. Much of the eastern edge of the Midwest drains into the Great Lakes, not the Gulf. And they, too, are experiencing fertilizer-fed algae blooms—particularly Lake Erie. The below satellite image depicts the record-setting, oxygen-depleting bloom that smothered much of Lake Erie in 2011, which peaked at 2,000 square miles (about Delaware-size). "That's more than three times larger than any previously observed Lake Erie algae bloom, including blooms that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the lake was famously declared dead," a University of Michigan report found. The culprit: severe storms in the spring, plus "agricultural practices that provide the key nutrients that fuel large-scale blooms."

University of Michigan

Then there's the Chesapeake Bay region, site of a stunning concentration of factory-scale chicken facilities (Food and Water Watch map)…

Food and Water Watch

 

…and a massive annual dead zone. "Livestock manure and poultry litter account for about half of the nutrients entering the Chesapeake Bay," the Chesapeake Bay Program reports:

Source: NOAA

 

All of which raises the question: Are dead zones inevitable, a sacrifice necessary to feeding a nation of 300 million people? Turns out, not so much. A 2012 Iowa State University study found that by simply adding one or two crops to the Midwest's typical corn-soy crop rotation, farmers would reduce their synthetic nitrogen fertilizer needs by 80 percent, while staying just as productive. And instead of leaving fields bare over winter, they could plant them with cover crops—a practice that, according to the US Department of Agriculture, "greatly reduces soil erosion and runoff" (among many other ecological benefits)—meaning cleaner streams, rivers, and ultimately, lakes, bays, and gulfs. Moreover, when animals are rotated briskly through pastures—and not crammed into factorylike structures where their manure accumulates into a dramatic waste problem—they, too, can contribute to healthy soil that traps nutrients, protecting waterways from runoff.