Review: Chickenizing Farms and Food

Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Farmers and Consumers Ellen K. Silbergeld.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2o16.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Silbergeld, a medical scientist, became concerned about drug-resistant microbes in 1999, as a Maryland-based researcher and physician confronted with the problem. This volume, as she states multiple times in her introduction, “is not about food” but “how we got the agriculture we have now.” It outlines the steps that must be taken to protect workers and consumers against the drug-resistant bugs that industrial, mass-production ways of doing things have unleashed.  The introduction explains her stance and outlines her historical approach, which savages both the modern industrial producers and their opponents as insufficiently attentive to the challenges of producing enough affordable food to nourish a world of 9 billion while simultaneously protecting the public health all along the food chain.  Her story begins in the 1920s with the Maryland farmers’ scale-up of poultry production through systematic confinement of increasing numbers of birds throughout their short life cycles. It details vertical integration and concentration of marketing orchestrated by Perdue and Tyson, who recognized and seized the business opportunity to develop and then dominate industrial production of animals for human food.  “Chickenizing,” which included concentrated feed and antibiotics that supposedly enhanced growth, was soon imitated by swine producers and processors, who similarly exposed their workers and consumers to rapidly co-evolving microbes resistant to existing antibiotics.  

Silberberg’s solution to this public-health disaster is not small-farmers and local agriculture, but greater regulation and monitoring of corporate meat production.  She wants everyone to acknowledge that food and agriculture is an industry, which should be subject to the same strict human, as well as environmental-protection codes that regulate other industries.  At the very least, and immediately, pointless antibiotics should be banned.

In advancing this conversation, Silbergeld finds most advocates for small, organic, local farming annoying, if not wrongheaded.  On p.8 she protests that their passionate “support for small farmers because they are ‘stewards of biodiversity,’ protectors of the climate, and the core of rural communities” fails to convince: “Where’s the evidence that small farmers can feed the world? Even a medium-sized city?  At prices that most of the people—even in our relatively affluent country—can afford?”  Her self-righteous antagonists respond: “This is not about evidence…This is about which side of the future you are on.” Whereas she self-righteously worries about more immediate and mundane matters, like the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables and uncontaminated meats low-income people in crowded cities might be able to access in the absence of the modern food industry with its systems and economies of scale.  

Her chapters, which focus not on environmental sustainability, but on the various openings these systems create for hazardous microbes to contaminate food and destroy human health, are packed with observations and numbers describing microbe-filled wastes and their propensities to infect human beings: “Wastes are the major output of food animal production … Over its short lifespan of some 7 weeks, each chicken produces about 10 lbs. of waste, which is considerably more than the weight of a fresh broiler chicken at the supermarket (about 4 lbs.).  For swine, the amount of waste produced per hog also far exceeds its market weight of 200-300 lbs.  To reach that weight, each hog produces about one ton of waste. … Each American produces about 5 lbs. of waste a day or about 1,600 lbs. per year.”  Whereas “human waste undergoes stringent management…there is little regulation of animal waste management” because it is not a direct part of the food chain. (p.116).  After tracing the histories of concentrated but porous animal-production operations, the author describes in detail the process of antimicrobial resistance, the “collateral damage” to tropical forests and peoples cut down and reduced to urban penury in order to produce soy for animal feed, the inadequacies of hazard regulation of the food-chain (“have a cup of coffee and pray”), and the need to hold corporations rather than consumers responsible for food safety.  She singles out differential “risks of food borne illness” as a topic ripe for health-disparities research, and offers an evidence-based but less rigorous account of food deserts, cheaper but unhealthier products targeted at low-income consumers, and the unwillingness of large food processors or retailers to prevent or solve these problems. 

The conceptual outline of the penultimate chapter, “Can we feed the world?” could provide the basis for lively class discussions around the sub-themes, “what do we mean by ‘feeding’?”, “what is the world that we commit to feeding?”, “‘what’ are we to feed the world?” and “how are we to feed the world?”.  This last section returns to the theme of sustainability of people (workers and consumers), rather than food or environment.  She ultimately is unconvinced by the evidence that small organic and local farmers can feed the world.  Therefore, industrial agriculture is necessary but must be regulated.  This final focus on the food industry, in her concluding chapter, offers “a path forward, not backward” toward a regulated food industry that protects people as well as the environment.  But readers might reasonably protest that such strengthened and bolder regulations by federal, state, and municipal institutions are unlikely in the current U.S. political environment, where moneyed interests buy political influence to act against government regulations at multiple scales. 

The strengths of this volume are its clear presentation of concepts and evidence, lucid explanations of the supporting science, and spirited critique of both sides in the Big Ag/Food vs. Small/Local Ag/Food encounter.  The weaknesses are obviously the proposed solutions and their politics.  Moreover, there is surprisingly little attention to agriculture’s emergent “middle way,” the current explorations of the potentials of regional food systems to provide livelihoods, healthy food, and ecosystem services, and intermediate marketing mechanisms.  The author might have consulted more with the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, where Kate Clancy is a champion for this middle way, and where the author is a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy and management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.


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