How's About a Little [Historical] Perspective On Those Pew Reports and Industrial Farm Animal Production?

UPDATE TO ORIGINAL POST: I haven't got time to re-write this piece so I'll just add this explanatory note (because apparently I was unclear in the original below): My commentary here is on REPORTS. Makes no difference what the reports are about. I'm commenting on the general tone and intent of reports like these. I've read zillions, and regardless of their content or intent, they're all the same. The topic doesn't matter. They're blather. On with the show. 


Note: If you’ve already read the two reports discussed here, skip introductory section I and go to Part II.

In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) issued a reported titled Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. (Funding and support came from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.) (*1)

Last week, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future marked the fifth anniversary of that report by releasing a follow-up study: Industrial Food Animal Production in America: Examining the Impact of the Pew Commission’s Priority Recommendations


pew ocver.jpeg

The interwebs are awash (more or less) with commentary and reports on the details and specifics of both documents. Here, however, I want to focus not on the reports’ contents but on the assumptions and logic that shaped them. (*2) But first: a brief summary of the reports themselves.

NOTE: I have not been able to find anything indicating what prompted the formation of the commission or the funding of the report. The closest I came was this. 



Let’s start with the basic document, the original 2008 report. 

According to the Commission’s website:

The independent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) was formed to conduct a comprehensive, fact-based and balanced examination of key aspects of the farm animal industry. Commissioners represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives and come from the fields of veterinary medicine, agriculture, public health, business, government, rural advocacy and animal welfare.
For 2 1/2 years, the PCIFAP, in consultation with other national experts, conducted an assessment of the industry's impact on the public’s health, the environment, farm communities and animal health and well-being. The PCIFAP conducted public meetings around the country and produced specialized technical reports to help inform the Commissioners and the public. On April 29, 2008 it issued a comprehensive report of its findings, including practical recommendations that have been made available to policymakers, industry stakeholders and the general public. PCIFAP is a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Once convened, the commissioners studied the impact of “industrial farm animal production” (IFAP) on four areas: “public health, environment, animal welfare, and the vitality of rural communities.” (p. iv. Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to the 2008 study.)  

The commissioners reported that they encountered 

 . . . serious obstacles to . . .  completing [the] review and approving consensus recommendations. The agriculture industry is not monolithic, and the formation of this Commission was greeted by industrial agriculture with responses ranging from open hostility to wary cooperation. In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to Commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university. We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement. (viii)

Despite that alleged resistance (which is not documented in the report), the commissioners forged on, and in 2008, they issued their findings and conclusions: 

The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food. (viii)


The commissioners also proposed recommendations for action. Among many: Ban the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production. Create more agriculture regulatory mechanisms. Enforce existing ones. Fund research. Create a new federal Food Safety Administration. Use zoning to site industrial livestock production facilities. Enforce antitrust laws. 

Last week, and five years after the release of the 2008 report, the Center for a Livable Future released a five-year, follow-up study. The new document reiterates the gist of the 2008 study, and details various laws and regulations initiated since the release of the original report. 

But the bulk of this second study is devoted to detailing the lack of progress since the first report appeared:  

Many hoped the release of the [2008] report . . . would help trigger a sea change in the federal government’s approach to regulating the food animal production industry. Advocates were confident that the incoming Obama administration would offer a substantively different philosophy with respect to the impact of the food animal production industry on human health and the environment as compared to the policies and actions of the Bush and preceding administrations. Early administrative appointments to top regulatory posts held promise for meaningful changes.


So that’s the gist of the two reports. Again, I’m not interested in picking through/at the details. (Bare minimum, I lack the expertise. I’m not a scientist or livestock producer.) And plenty of other people have waded into the analysis swamp; Google can lead you there. 

Instead, I’d like to comment on the logic and assumptions that underlie the studies. 

During the seven years I worked on the meat book, I read umptybajillion reports, studies, and analyses more or less identical to the two Pew documents (identical in tone and structure, not content). Some were congressional reports. Some were the work of appointed commissions. 

Having waded through many such studies, here’s what I’ve concluded: They’re exercises in blather, consisting primarily of vague directives aimed at Fixing A Big Problem. 

The studies follow a pattern: A group frames a “problem” and assigns blame for it. The Pew Commission, for example, identified a series of problems caused by IFAP, and blamed those woes on “industry” and “big corporations.” 


The Problem.jpg

Having defined the problem and assigned blame, the group typically grouses that “progress” --- i.e., solving the problem defined by the commission --- is slow, lacking, or non-existent. The group offers solutions, typically in the form of “more”: More legislations. More regulation. More research. 

Once the report is published, groups also interested in Fixing The Big Problem respond with either dismay or joy. Those blamed for the Big Problem, on the other hand, pick the reports to pieces, looking for factual errors and evidence of bias. (And make no mistake: bias is built into such reports, because they’re written by the very people who’ve defined the Big Problem.)

In the case of the most recent report, for example, food reformers reacted with sorrow, grief, dismay, and rage: Nothing’s changed! Big Food and Big Ag are still blocking progress! 

Farmers, agricultural advocates, and others in related industries reacted with outrage and anger: Another biased, inaccurate document!



 And so on. You get the drift. There’s no need for me to pile on either side. They’re doing a fine job on their own. Again, my interest is not in the details but in the logic and assumptions that underpin such reports.

Consider these two examples: the Foreword and Preface of the 2008 report.

The commissioner who wrote the Foreword noted that the Kansas county where he grew up had at least thirty dairy farms when he was a kid. But

Today in Saline County and most Kansas counties, it is nearly impossible to find that kind of diversified farm. Most have given way to large, highly specialized, and highly productive animal producing operations. In Saline County today, there is only one dairy farm, yet it and similar operations across the state produce more milk from fewer cows statewide than I and all of my peers did when I was actively farming.


Note the implication (and it’s implied, not asserted): There’s only one farm left; that’s bad; and so is the fact that it’s a big farm. He adds that

Industrial farm animal production (IFAP) is a complex subject involving individuals, communities, private enterprises and corporations large and small, consumers, federal and state regulators, and the public at large. All Americans have a stake in the quality of our food, and we all benefit from a safe and affordable food supply. We care about the well-being of rural communities, the integrity of our environment, the public’s health, and the health and welfare of animals. 

Blather 101.

That Foreword is followed by a Preface from the Commission’s Executive Director: 

At the end of his second term, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex—an unhealthy alliance between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and their friends on Capitol Hill. Now, the agro-industrial complex—an alliance of agriculture commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill—is a concern in animal food production in the 21st century.

Neither man leaves any doubt where the Commission will come down on the the subject of “industrial animal livestock production.”

Finally to the main event, the study itself. In the first section, the Commissioners outline the origins and history of IFAP, and lay the roots of this evil at the feet of the shift to “mechanized” agriculture. 

Subsistence farming was the nation’s primary occupation well into the 1800s. In 1863, for example, there were more than six million farms and 870 million acres under cultivation. The mechanization of agriculture began in the 1840s with Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the reaper, which increased farm yields and made it possible to move from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture. McCormick’s reaper was a miracle—it could harvest five to six acres daily compared with the two acres covered by farmers using the most advanced hand tools of the day. In anticipation of great demand, McCormick headed west to the young prairie town of Chicago, where he set up a factory and, by 1860, sold a quarter of a million reapers. The development of other farm machines followed in rapid succession: the automatic wire binder, the threshing machine, and the reaper-thresher, or combine. Mechanical planters, cutters, and huskers appeared, as did cream separators, manure spreaders, potato planters, hay driers, poultry incubators, and hundreds of other inventions.

Say what? The mechanization of agriculture began in the 1840s with Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the reaper . . . .” (p. 1)



They’re kidding, right? Folks, the mechanization of agriculture began as soon as humans stood upright and began living in one spot. 

The reaper “increased farm yields and made it possible to move from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture.”

Eh? Huh? Uh --- the first colonial settlers practiced “commercial agriculture.” So, for that matter, have millions of farmers since, well, since humans settled in groups. (Except back then it was called “trade.”)

But the worst of the worst is this: McCormick invented a device and bam! Everything changed and some people raced to buy it and others invented more cool tools. Zowie!

Translated into simple English: “technology” conjured itself out of mist and magic. McCormick invented a reaper for, well, no real reason. Apparently he liked reapers? He enjoyed inventing? The reaper was a sort of accident, the results of random fiddling? 

Imagine me at this point smashing my head against my desk. Folks, life and the world don’t work like that. Technology, a term applied to anything from two sticks rubbed together to make fire to your groovy new iPad, does not “happen” in a vacuum. 

Let me repeat that: Technology does not “happen” in a vacuum. Human beings act in and upon the world, typically in response to a perceived need or in order to solve a perceived problem.

Cyrus McCormick responded to a specific situation: Cities. In the 1840s, Americans had already made it clear to each other and the rest of the world that they preferred urban to rural life. 

City people by definition don’t make their own food. The nation’s farmers struggled to meet that demand, and no wonder: They were used to living in a mostly rural world where farmers grew enough to support their households and generate enough surplus to sell or trade in an open market. But as the number of non-farming stomachs increased, farmers couldn’t keep up, at least not using the tools they had. 

So people like John Deere and Cyrus McCormick and a slew of other creative souls analyzed the problem and presented solutions to it. A mechanical reaper. A new kind of plow (one designed specifically to work in the heavy prairie soil). (For the record, dozens if not hundreds of other people invented reapers and plows and other tools. Not all of them figured out how to manufacture and market them as efficiently as people like Deere and McCormick.)


Deere ad 1913.jpg

But in the minds of the Pew commissioners, well --- that reaper just . . . happened. McCormick sat around in his house or yard or whatever and dreamed up the device without once pondering whether anyone needed what he had invented.

Such leaps of logic like that worry me. Yes, I know that not everyone is a historian --- but I also know that the commission could have found an expert to write that section for them. 

But they didn’t and that, I suspect, is because it’s so much easier to assert that Stuff Happens in A Vacuum. And then, having eliminated human agency from the scene, it’s that much easier to blame the evils of “industrial farm animal production” on “industry” and “corporations.” Because that’s a hell of a lot easier than taking into account human needs, desires, and aspirations. 

But back to the report: Having introduced McCormick, reaper, and vacuum, the commissioners explain that at some unspecified later date 

New technologies for transportation and food preservation soon emerged. The railroad and refrigeration systems allowed farmers to get their products to markets across great distances to serve the rapidly growing cities of the day. 

Whew. So glad those guys are no longer out there in their backyard stables inventing away for no reason. And even more glad that suddenly farmers  had markets. Hoo-rah. (For the record: Americans began using refrigerated rail shipping in the 1840s.)

From there, the authors leap to the mid-twentieth century and explain that the Green Revolution (a “regime” of various technologies) enabled farmers to increase their crop yields. (p. 3) 

As a result of these significant increases in output, corn and grains became inexpensive and abundant, suitable as a staple to feed not only humans but animals as well. Inexpensive corn thus made large-scale animal agriculture more profitable and facilitated the evolution of intensive livestock feeding from an opportunistic method of marketing corn to a profitable industry.

And voila! IFAP rears its ugly head. Right? 

Not exactly. This statement makes it sound as if grain surpluses, cheap grains, and profitable livestock feeding were byproducts of the Green Revolution. But farmers had aimed at those holy grails ever since, well, ever since humans started farming. 



On the next page, things turn from muddle to mush. According to the commissioners, 

Intensive animal production began in the 1930s with America’s highly mechanized swine slaughterhouses. Henry Ford even credited the slaughterhouses for giving him the idea to take the swine “disassembly” line idea and put it to work as an assembly line for automobile manufacturing. Later, the ready availability of inexpensive grain and the rapid growth of an efficient transportation system made the United States the birthplace for intensive animal agriculture. (p. 5)

I read those sentences five times and finally concluded that the date 1930s is a typo. I suspect the authors actually meant 1830s. (I hope so. At any rate, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Because if they really meant 1930s, then the text that follows in that paragraph is nonsense. So let’s assume the typist meant to type “1830s.”)

To which I respond: Say what?

The mechanization of meatpacking in the 1830s caused the spread of intensive livestock production? And then at some “later” but unspecified date, “the ready availability of inexpensive grain and the rapid growth of an efficient transportation system made the United States the birthplace for intensive animal agriculture”?

What? I’m lost. What’s the connection? What does “intensive livestock production” mean? How did that differ from what farmers engaged in before they made this big switch? And what’s . . . I’m lost.

Or I would be if I were not a historian. If I were an ordinary Josephine reading this report, chances are I’d either gloss over that paragraph of pure mush or, if I tried to dissect it, I’d be confused as hell.

Yes, in the 1830s, Americans ramped up the use of mechanization in meatpacking (both hog and cattle). They did so in order to keep pace with demand -- from those pesky city dwellers, but also global markets: The center of hog slaughter and processing, the Ohio River valley, was jammed with various foreign companies in the US to take advantage of abundant livestock, and virtually every packer in the country expected to ship much of his output to markets abroad. (Which, for what it’s worth, packers had been doing since the colonial era.)

And yes, meatpackers needed raw materials --- cattle and hogs --- but the packers packed because they had markets where they could sell that stuff, and farmers raised livestock because they knew they could sell it to packers, and everyone aimed at the same goal: Feeding the cities. 

But you’d never know that from reading the document. An average reader would, as I say, either skim past or go away confused.

Next we learn that  

Paralleling the crop yield increases of the Green Revolution, new technologies in farm animal management emerged that made it feasible to raise livestock in higher concentrations than were possible before. (p. 5)

Again, note the role of “technology” in this process: it simply . . . emerged. Although whether from the Head of Zeus, the Virgin Mary, or some other random being is not clear.



The authors then wind up (or down) their opening section with this:

The current trend in animal agriculture is to grow more in less space, use cost-efficient feed, and replace labor with technology to the extent possible. [And] . . . packaged food products are marketed far from the farm itself. (p. 5)

The reader is to conclude, apparently, that using less land, less feed, and less labor is a bad thing. Tell that to the farmers who’ve aimed at precisely those goals for the past few thousand years. As for marketing packaged foods far from the farm --- yes. That’s true. It’s the rare farmer who has processed and processed his or her commercial crops and livestock on the farm. That’s because most farmers aren’t in the manufacturing business.

More troubling, however, is the implied critique of the present. Over and over again, the commissioners yearn for How Things Used To Be. Nor, I suspect, have they ever questioned that stance. I doubt they ever asked themselves why so many Americans have moved to cities over the past 150 years. I doubt they’ve pondered the possibility that “rural communities” could be something other than what they were 150 years ago. Nostalgia permeates the two studies. And worse (and more dangerous), it’s nostalgia that’s unexamined. 



Having waded through those first half dozen pages, I concluded that the commissioners weren’t interested in facts; and that they regarded the both logic and the relationships between cause and effect as irrelevant.

But onward I plowed, through more verbiage and mush, as the report’s authors detailed the negative impact of IFAP on people, animals, the environment, and rural areas. 

That analysis contains a ton (I exaggerate) of detail. The authors support their claims by citing various expert studies. But a careful reader would realize that all those words amount to not much.

For example, the section on the negative impacts of IFAP on public health cites multiple studies that indicate that IFAP “may be” or “can be” harmful to public health. 

These studies don’t conclude that IFAP IS harmful to public health. Just that it “may be” or “can be.” I doubt there’s a concrete declarative statement anywhere in that section (or for that matter in the entire report).

The Commission rounded out its study with a long list of recommendations, couched in vague generalities:  

Enforce antitrust laws! Now there’s an original goal, one toward which Americans have strived since passage of the first said law in 1890. (It’s tough to enforce that particular law because pretty much no one now or ever has agreed on what the law means or can/can’t do.) 

Write new regulations for agriculture! Okey dokey. 

And once you’ve done that, enforce the existing regulations! 

Increase funding for research! (Tell that to state legislators, the men and women who decide how much money public universities, the sites for most such research; most of them are busy trying to figure out how to deal with shrinking revenues.)

In short, blather piled on blather. 



Do you see why I’m skeptical of reports like this? The verbiage constitutes leaps of illogic and asserts a world-view in which humans have little agency. Such a stance is critical to pulling off such studies: Blame anyone but human beings for the Big Problem, and, hey, the Big Problem becomes, by definition, unsolvable and while we all wait for it not to be solved, we can enjoy the happy status of “victim” --- in the case of the Pew Reports, victims of Big Corporations and Industry. 

Presumably you get the drift: Read reports like these with care. Be aware that the sponsoring groups and commissions start from an agenda and pile on the verbiage in hopes that no one will notice that the text doesn’t add up to much. 

But be mindful, too, of the way these reports are presented in media. Journalists are busy folks, and unless they’ve been assigned the time and funds for in-depth research of their own, their best bet is to rely on the press release issued by the group that created the report --- a press release that will highlight what the study group wants the public to know.

So. This much vaunted, cited, chatted about report ain’t gonna do much to further  change when it comes to “industrial agriculture livestock production.” 

I suspect that’s intentional. Based on my reading of entirely too many such reports, I’ve concluded that they’re designed to do one thing and one thing only: rally the troops.

In this case, food reformers can bemoan the fact that no progress has been made since the first report was issued, and by god, it just proves that Obama sucks and the Republicans in Congress are mean and nasty and that Big Corporations continue to rule the world and there’s nothing we poor victims can do about it and woe is us and here’s more evidence of conspiracy to prevent us from making the world a perfect place. (And so, by god, those troops will say, I’m gonna donate more money to a group that lobbies for change.)

You heard it here first.

And yeah, it’s a safe bet that my 4,000-word take on these two reports isn’t worth the bytes it consumes. But hey! A historian’s gotta do what a historian’s gotta do. 


*1: The fifteen commissioners included a former governor of Kansas, a former assistant Surgeon General, a food service company CEO, a former Secretary of Agriculture, a state senator, a former director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, six university professors and/or administrators (including a philosopher), the co-founder of Niman Ranch, a Montana cattle rancher, and a long-time organic farming activist. 

*2: It may be useful to lay my own bias on the table. I am not a scientist or an economist or any kind of -ist. I’m just a historian. And otherwise an ordinary soul who defers to scientists and other experts when it comes to complex stuff like climate change, antibiotic resistance, and the like. So I make no claims about the expertise cited in the Pew reports. None. I don’t have the skills, training, or smarts to determine which of the many cited experts are “right” and which aren’t.

But here’s where I stand: I’d love to see the end of industrial farm animal production. Won’t bother me if antibiotics are banned on the farm. I’d be glad to see rural communities restored to “neighborliness,” as the commissioners phrased it.

But I doubt that creating more regulations and enforcing existing ones will get us there. The only way to reform agriculture is through consumer demand. If Americans reduced meat consumption by three-quarters, down to about fifty pounds per capita per year, many of those IFAP units with their manure, drugs, and other evils would be unnecessary. What meat eaters in other parts of the world will think about the decline in the number of those operations is not clear, but they can figure that out. (Because damn it, I can’t solve EVERY problem in the world.) (I mention meat eaters elsewhere because a major impetus for the surge in the size and number of IFAP units from about 1970 on was demand from the rest of the world.)

So that’s my take. The rest is just chatter. (And for the record, I eat about fifty pounds of meat a year.)