The animal factory revolution
March 9, 1982
A great agricultural revolution has been sweeping the industry for several years but has received scant popular exposure. Agribusiness and the giant chemical and pharmaceutical complexes have conspired to maintain a low profile for what obviously is a tremendous industrial development.
The high profits that will accrue to agribusiness and the chemical-pharmaceutical complex are enormous. The dangers for animal and human life are perhaps equally as enormous and explain the low profile for this significant development. It should also be noted that this new agricultural revolution holds potentially great advantages in the production of food and the alleviation of hunger on a world scale.
New revolution on the land
This agricultural revolution is perhaps akin to the two great earlier revolutions in agriculture. The first one took place many thousands of years ago with the introduction of draft animals, which greatly increased the food supplies in the world. The second great agricultural revolution was the use of the modern tractor which multiplied food production on a national and world scale, at least for most of the industrialized countries of the world.
The latter did, of course, displace a tremendous amount of small farms, decreasing the farm population in this country The steady decline of the working population on the farms which began early in the 20th century has never stopped, but has continued at a galloping pace to this day.
The revolution in animal factory production has some of the fundamental features of mass production in the automobile industry. Mass production, introduced and developed by Henry Ford, came into existence at the very beginning of the age of monopoly capitalism but before finance capital had drawn auto and other industries completely into its vortex.
At the beginning, mass production in autos was able to tremendously increase the volume of auto production. Autos began rolling off the assembly line by the millions. Mass production reduced the unit cost per auto while at the same time increasing the number of auto workers and increasing their wage level. It thus proved, for a short period, the progressive character of this new method of capitalist production -- before the decline began and the now decadent state of the industry.
The new revolution in agricultural production is most typified by the factory production of hogs and other animals. The revolution is based on the rapid application of a particular method of mass production on the farm. This is known as confinement feeding of animals.
This method can only be used by the very big farmers, mostly farm corporations. It allows them to raise many thousands of hogs in very enclosed, extremely small areas. it is most prevalent in the Midwest, in such high-producing areas as Iowa. Hog production is therefore being systematically industrialized in farming.
The confinement buildings have floors of concrete or plastic slats which allow the urine and manure to run through to the holding pits below. Mechanical systems suck the excrement from the pits to tanks. Then it is trucked to fields and spread as fertilizer. Heating and cooling systems keep the temperature at about 80 degrees in the summer in the farrowing unit and ward off extremes of hot and cold in other units.
Should the electrical power for the confinement units break down, there is supposed to be an alarm system which triggers a telephone alert, notifying personnel of the danger.
The technological systems introduced to sustain the confinement of animals are the most important innovation. Another is the steady growth of automated feeding of animals and the use of complex water systems. Many antibiotics and other drugs are necessary for the raising and development of cattle stock in close confinement. And highly specialized systems are used to remove urine and manure.
The steady and consistent growth of the industry has spread out and encompassed not only pork but beef and poultry production. All are becoming increasingly specialized and highly concentrated.
Farmers dependent on banks
It need hardly be stated that the increased concentration of this capitalist industry not only increases the size of the undertakings, but reduces the number of necessary farmers. They must not only have considerable sums of money available, but also be able to obtain the indispensable credit from banks. The latter have to extend these loans in order to make large-scale feeding units manageable and possible.
The so-called independent farmer today probably needs $500,000 to establish the units necessary for this latest development in mechanization. It requires a breeding and gestation building, a farrowing unit where pigs give birth and where pigs stay until they are weaned after four weeks, a nursery facility where pigs stay until they reach 100 pounds, and a finishing unit where they are kept until they reach marketing weight of 210-220 pounds.
According to a New York Times article of August 11, 1980, one proprietor, assisted by a full-time hired man and two high school youths, said the unit allows him to market about 6,000 hogs a year. Under the old method, he could only market 3,000 a year!
It goes without saying that these new methods of production have tremendously increased the sum total of animal production, not only of hogs, but of cattle and chickens.
'New corporate peons'
The decline in the number of small farms has been catastrophic. The existence of a large number of so-called independent proprietors has, in fact, become so closely dependent upon the large chemical and pharmaceutical corporations and the banks that they often speak of themselves as the "new corporate peons."
The lot of the working farmers, and the agricultural workers in particular, especially migrant workers, has become most perilous.
Unlike the two great previous agricultural revolutions -- from manual labor to draft animals and the introduction of the modern tractor -- this revolution poses dangers to both animals and humans.
There's no question that the tractor caused tremendous social havoc by displacing and driving the farming population into the cities. The present revolution however poses an additional hazard.
The latest developments in animal factory production have not only reduced the size of the workforce, unlike what happened with mass production in auto at the early stage. They have also failed to cause, certainly not until now, any reduction in the unit cost of animal production.
The growth of the productive forces and a reduction in the unit cost of production -- without reducing the wage level of the workers -- would demonstrate the progressive character of the industry by making agricultural products more available to the masses of the people. However, what has taken place is just the opposites -- a steady increase in price of food over a period of years.
The consistent and ever-increasing introduction of pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and all sorts of mechanical and technological devices to develop the system has not reduced the unit price in the cost of production. The principal reason for it is the highly monopolized character of the industries on which the new agricultural revolution is dependent. In reality agriculture has become an appendage of agribusiness and the giant pharmaceutical-chemical complex, not to speak of the giant banks which fund them.
Scattered character of agriculture was easy prey for monopolies
The auto industry's ability to introduce mass production and reduce the unit price of the automobile was due in part to the fact that the Ford Motor Company had available its own sources of supplies and raw materials.
The automobile manufacturers at the time numbered between 25 and 30, with perhaps as many more in embryonic development. This is practically nothing compared to the scattered character of agriculture in general. There were originally millions of farmers, all conducting business on an individual basis.
The scattered character of agriculture has made it an easy prey for giant monopolized industry in general. The monopolies barred the road to lowering the cost of agricultural commodities in general and processed food in particular.
The tremendous potential benefit to humanity of mass production, especially in a country which has such an abundance of natural resources, is inhibited and highly restricted by the phenomenon of finance capital in cooperation with the chemical and huge drug corporations. It has also raised great health dangers.
The health hazards which this new agricultural revolution is bringing about are enormous. The warnings of individual writers, journalists and experts in the field have been pooh-poohed. Industry magazines such as Beef and National Hog continue to sing paeans of praise for the great achievements of the industry and underplay the hazards.
Veterinarians, agronomists, and the many scientific personnel employed in the universities of the country which deal with agricultural development are funded by the great corporate monsters and leave little room for objective analysis of the health hazards.
One of the few truly significant exposés of the health hazards was the book by Jim Mason and Peter Singer, Animal Factories,, (Crown Publishers). The authors show that crowding of animals into these confinement areas not only causes stress but germ buildup, filthy air, and other conditions which invite disease.
The confinement system often causes digestive disorders in the animals, including ulcers and chronic water and bowel movements in some animals like calves. Vitamin deficiencies in chickens, which are common in poultry factories, result in a variety of problems like heart damage, blindness, lethargy, kidney damage, bone and muscle weakness, and so on. This does not exhaust, by any means, the health hazards involved in an area which holds such great potential in other ways.
Closed confinement not only method
In the first place, it is necessary to invalidate and destroy the myth cultivated by agribusiness and the chemical-pharmaceutical complex, that the closed confinement aspect of the production process is the only method for introducing the mass production of animals in this country.
The element of closed confinement quarters, which is central to this system, is completely suspect. It does not grow out of a planned, let alone pre-planned, system of mass production. It is just one possible system out of many.
It is suspect because the confinement principle was a response not to highly sophisticated and new technological developments, but to the skyrocketing price of land resulting from the raging inflation. It should be obvious to all that this new system arose only in the last few years -- at the very height of inflation and land speculation.
It is not a logical outgrowth of engineering processes and sophisticated technological developments. There may be an abundance of other systems.
The efforts of agribusiness and the chemical-farm complex to present it as the sole and exclusive method is sheer fraud.
The development of the confinement system also has very significant foreign policy implications. The confinement system o f mass production was developed at a time when prices were steadily rising in an inflationary wave. Introducing the system at the time and continuing it was a form of economic warfare against Argentina, Australia, and the European Common Market.
The origin of this scheme is based on artificial factors and by no stretch of the imagination on any thought for the human needs of the people, let alone a humane attitude toward the animals.
Collusion of USDA
This system was made possible by the fact that when it was first initiated on a mass scale, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under Earl Butz, who served under the Nixon administration until he was ousted for his outlandishly racist remarks, closed its eyes to the onerous aspects of this development and gave it the green light.
The Department is charged with the responsibility for the health and safety of the people. What the government was obliged to do was to put the burden of proof on agribusiness to demonstrate that theirs was the sole and exclusive method possible, that no other method was available, and that a scarcity of the food supply existed which made it necessary.
None of this was attempted.
In truth, the USDA has been a servile instrument of agribusiness and the chemical-drug complex.
If the industry was recalcitrant and proved difficult to combat, it was incumbent upon the government to do what other government agencies were finally forced to do in the struggle against the utilities several decades ago. It was the government which erected the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), not only to increase electrical energy, which was necessary to make fertile areas out of barren land, but to prove that electrical power could be produced at lower costs.
As we said, there was no alternative plan presented by agribusiness or the government as against this onerous and cruel development. Even pilot programs, which often give a measure of the efficacy of a new system, were, to the best of our knowledge, not presented.
The large concentration of animals into very small areas is not a necessary aspect of mass production. The essential ingredient of any mass production system is the ability to introduce low-cost products by extensive use of automatic machinery and a minute division of labor.
The system that we described above is merely one type of system, which is crude, onerous, and lacks sophistication. When one thinks of the hundreds of thousands of many minute and delicate mechanisms which have been developed for the space and electronic industries, the use of the confinement method for animals is positively antediluvian.
The public interest
Furthermore, the public interest is completely disregarded.
No public intervention or protest on a significant scale has taken place against the government to compel the banker-industrial complex to take into consideration the human interest.
Consider the fact that a multi-billion-dollar development corporation in New York City decided to establish a modern hotel in the heart of New York on 42nd Street at Grand Central. Purchasing it was easy considering the immense sums available to the developers. And they were ready almost immediately with bulldozers to demolish what many regarded as a valuable historic landmark -- Grand Central.
There was a small protest by interested groups. The horde of corporate servitors in the form of engineers, architects, etc., snowed the group with charts, plans, and all sorts of imaginary engineering obstacles which "proved" that building the hotel was "absolutely impossible" if the landmark remained.
But as the protests escalated and more and more people who knew something about the development business got involved, the hordes of engineers, architects, etc., soon enough found a way to both retain the landmark and at the same time build around it!
If this could be done on an issue which is, after all, very small by comparison with the development of the agricultural revolution and its onerous consequences, then certainly mass intervention, first of all by the interested elements from the profession itself, could begin to turn the tide and show up the industry.
It is only struggle which can make the agrichemical complex look up and listen.
It should be taken into account by progressives in this field that it is precisely during a deep capitalist recession, like the present one, that all of capitalist industry is engaged in formulating plans to alter methods of production and refurbish new technological systems.
Capitalist recessions are the so-called slack seasons which give the capitalists an opportunity to go over and review their industrial systems of operation. And it is also the best time to vigorously advance alternatives to the so-called confinement system as the sole and exclusive means for mass production.
Many decades ago, Upton Sinclair, in a well-known novel of the time, The Jungle, described analogous conditions in the stockyards of Chicago. It caused an immediate sensation in the country. The government immediately intervened with an investigation, which ultimately resulted in some progressive legislation based upon inspection and supervision.
No such outcry has greeted the still meager but growing literature on the health hazards in factory animal production of which Mason and Singer's book is one of the very best.
The grip of monopoly retards social progress, impedes technological development, permitting only its relative growth where profit is easily maximized, and disregards the hazards to the ecological system as a whole as does, for instance, nuclear energy. In terms of health hazards, the new agricultural revolution, which holds such great promise in augmenting the food supply for a growing population, is also akin to the nuclear industry.
Do we here in the U.S. now need an agricultural version of the Three Mile Island or Love Canal catastrophes to awaken the public?
Many progressive animal scientists, veterinarians, agricultural engineers, and farm experts in the specialized fields where technology and its application to agriculture are so important, frequently blame the mere chase for high productivity, efficiency, and the general urge for growth of technology as the causes for the acceleration of health hazards to life and limb. They should not stop there, however. Nor should they commiserate, as some do, on the rapid growth and proliferation of technology in all fields of endeavor and even refer to it as the "cancer of growth."
Need political offensive
It is necessary to mount a broad political offensive which includes not merely an exposure of the evils of the agri-chemical complex, but a consistent exposure of the USDA and the government and carefully prepared alternatives as part of mobilizing public opinion.
The USDA should not be left to make decisions alone, especially of an administrative character, which deal with such important aspects of the life of the people. It is necessary to bring in the broad public as an indispensable factor.
Instead of administrative decisions made by appointed underlings of the USDA, juries of the people should sit and listen to the scientific evidence presented by the industry. Commensurate financial and technical resources should be made available for a public prosecutor to present evidence on behalf of the people, the consumers. They, and they alone can make the necessary decisions based upon conflicting evidence presented by the industry and the people's prosecutor.
There are hundreds of well-known criminal cases involving murder where complex scientific evidence presented by the prosecutor and the defense is carefully analyzed and correct verdicts made (except, of course, in cases of outright fraud or frame-up). The judgment of the people in making these verdicts is a thousand times more credible than the "unvarnished truths" presented by the likes of the agri-chemical business.
Private ownership is root of problem
While all the writings of the progressives in this field are very well-meaning, and their contribution of detailed and exhaustive research especially important, what is overlooked is not just the chase for super-profits.
What is rarely if ever mentioned is that it is not the character of large-scale production or the ever-increasing acceleration in the development of sophisticated technology in all fields of endeavor which is the problem, it is the incubus of private ownership of the basic means of production which is absolutely the principal cause of all the calamities which the capitalist system of production continues to visit upon humanity.
Private property in the basic means of production, which was at one time a promoter of progress, has turned into a reactionary obstruction. Indeed, as we reach the end of the 20th century, the contributions of capitalism, once the most revolutionary in the history of humanity, have turned from life savers into virtual killers.
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