- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010


By David Kirby

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 492 pages


Since the runaway success of the documentary “Food, Inc.” - and its promotion by Oprah Winfrey - more Americans want to know how and where their food comes from.

David Kirby, an investigative journalist who writes about agriculture for the Huffington Post, has produced a sobering expose that doctors of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have compared to “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking 1906 classic on the meatpacking industry. “Animal Factory” is not a book about animal welfare, or nutrition, or fair labor practices.

Instead, it is something that concerns us all, no matter what our political persuasion - the long-term health of people and communities directly affected by factory farms - otherwise known, in Orwellian lingo, as “concentrated animal-feeding operations” (CAFOs). In these farms, thousands of dairy cows, chickens and pigs are confined indoors in small spaces and raised on pharmaceuticals, generating toxic and biological waste.

Mr. Kirby gives examples from four regions of the country: eastern North Carolina, eastern Maryland, Illinois and the Yakima Valley of Washington state, and the problems created by swine, dairy and poultry CAFOs. By showing the geographic diversity of the issue, he has brought attention to individuals living on or near these farms.

Most of the farmers Mr. Kirby interviewed, including those running the CAFOs, seemed to care about the environment and communities, and the safety and quality of the food they produce. Yet some are becoming increasingly disillusioned as they note how the CAFOs are contributing to their community and economic decline.

The book reads like the script of a gripping documentary. If, unfairly at times, one feels that the author did little more than run a tape recorder and transcribe conversations, the anecdotes recorded are powerful and vivid testimony about what is happening across the country.

Millions of tons of contamination from animal manure are discharged into the environment every year, much of it illegally. We read about a North Carolina fisherman who takes on the pig farms to preserve his river, property values and family. A grandmother from Washington state becomes an unlikely activist when her water supply is compromised by runoff by the lagoons of cattle waste. Then there is the case of liquid manure spilling onto highways and creating a driving hazard, of how several children were injured “when their school bus skidded on a patch of goo.”

Or the man who tumbled into a stream near Crisfield, Md., dubbed “Chicken Poop Creek,” and almost died from E.coli from water he ingested. Crisfield, on the Eastern Shore is a region familiar to all of us in Washington. The Delmarva “chicken belt” produces 1 million tons of manure a year, enough to fill “a football stadium to the top row, including all the concourses, locker rooms, and concession areas,” causing much of the Chesapeake Bay to be a dead zone during the summer, closing beaches and causing illness in livestock, people and pets. Recent studies have found a connection between arsenic in feed, chicken litter and cancer.

So what is the solution? Mr. Kirby is neither elitist nor idealistic. He acknowledges that buying strictly organic food can be cost-prohibitive for most people (and includes himself in the equation). Nonetheless, as best-selling author Michael Pollan points out, each of us can introduce one organic food element to one meal per day. Organic eggs and milk, for instance, contain higher concentrations of vitamins, so you get more bang for the buck, as it were - a fact often missed by the same people who spend hours searching the most environmentally friendly items online, then load their grocery carts with whatever food is best for their pocketbook.

And cheap at the checkout counter does not mean cheap for society as a whole, as Mr. Kirby convincingly explains in his epilogue, where he departs from anecdotes and lays out the sober facts regarding the price we pay for protein. Externalized costs of CAFOs include pollution and disease, loss of property values, plus federal subsidies, buyouts and farm bill giveaways.

Not to mention environmental health risks affecting us all: E. coli and salmonella, antibiotic resistance in medicine, avian flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, hormone imbalances, arsenic poisoning, cancer clusters, childhood asthma, dead zones in water, meat and other food recalls - all linked to industrial animal production.

Admittedly how our food is produced and processed is a “complex, emotional and volatile issue,” as Mr. Kirby notes. Many would love to see the CAFOs disappear entirely - “but many people would also like to see world peace and a cure for cancer.”

Progress has been made by libertarian Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm, whose mission has been teaching others how to be profitable and sustainable by incorporating inventive methods of compost piles and portable sheltering systems (to name a few). USDA programs, however, are still structured to promote and subsidize large corporate farms.

In writing “Animal Factory,” Mr. Kirby interviewed a wide range of individuals, but efforts to include leaders from agribusiness and the federal government, especially from the Obama administration, were less successful, and their silence is a resounding absence in this book. Europe has long recognized that food safety is linked to the health of the animals that produce that food. (They banned arsenic in chicken feed in 1999.)

Removing antimicrobials from animal feed unquestionably saved money through reduced human medical costs. The scandal of industrial food-animal production is a direct link to the health care debate, making “Animal Factory” all the more urgent. Mr. Kirby has produced a powerful, important book to all those who care about their family’s health.

“Every bite we take has had some impact on the natural environment, somewhere in the world,” Mr. Kirby writes. Developing countries, such as Brazil, take note: “As the planet grows more crowded, and more farmers turn to industrialized methods to feed millions of new mouths, that impact will only worsen.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” and editor of a two-volume collection of his essays to be released by the Library of America in September.

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