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The impact of factory farming upon the American land and native biodiversity is seldom discussed, but animal protein production has a significant impact upon the Nation’s land and water. The direct environmental problems like air or water pollution associated with large factory farming operations may be clear, but less obvious are the environmental impacts associated with the agricultural production of feed crops and other consequences associated with large factory farming operations.

Factory Farming’s Long Reach

The impact of factory farming upon the American land and native biodiversity is seldom discussed, but animal protein production has a significant impact upon the Nation’s land and water. The direct environmental problems like air or water pollution associated with large factory farming operations may be clear, but less obvious are the environmental impacts associated with the agricultural production of feed crops and other consequences associated with large factory farming operations.

According to the Animal Feed Manufactors’ Association, one third of the world’s grains are fed directly to animals. In developed countries the percentage of grains fed directly to livestock rises to 60%, with 80% of the grains in the United States fed to livestock. Since the United States is the leading producer of beef cattle in the world, it is also the top animal feed producer in the world, with more than double the acreage in animal feed production than its closest rival China . This means the majority of cropland in the United States is not growing food for direct human consumption as many presume, but is used to grow forage crops for domestic livestock, including chickens, hogs, and cattle. In fact, in the United States, domestic livestock consume 5 times as much grain as the entire American population

It takes a huge amount of grain crops to support livestock production. For instance, to produce 1 kg of beef requires 7 kg of feed grain. Though chickens are more efficient at converting grain to meat, the ratio is still two to one with 2 kg of grain required to produce 1 kg of meat According to Cornell University’s David Pimentel, if the cropland currently used to grow grain fed to livestock were directed towards growing crops for human consumption, we could feed 800 million additional people or more likely provide a descent meal for those whose diet is inadequate.

In order to feed concentrated, confined animals, huge acreages of America’ s best farmland have been converted into monocultures of often genetically modified crops that stretch for miles. The major feed crops are corn, soybeans, and hay/alfalfa with smaller amounts of other grains like oats, barley and even wheat. For instance, 22% of all wheat grown in the US ultimately ends up as animal feed, rather than in food products like bread or cereal consumed directly by humans.

While it’s difficult to determine how much of any crop is used to feed confined animal operations as opposed to diverse small farming operations, the total impact of animal agriculture of any kind is significant. Consider these statistics.

Globally, production of livestock feed uses a third of the Earth’s arable land In the United States farmland production is even more skewed towards animal feed. In 2008 American farmers, primarily in the Mid-west, planted 87 million acres to feeder corn. Part of that acreage figure was due to demand for corn created by ethanol, but the bulk of the corn acreage is used for animal feed. By comparison, farmers only planted an average of 234,000 acres across the entire country to fresh market sweet corn, the plant we consume directly for corn on the cob, and other food .

To give some comparison, Montana , the fourth largest state in the Nation is 93 million acres in size. So imagine nothing but corn stretching east and west across Montana’s 550 miles and north and south by 300 miles. This is a huge area to be plowed up, and planted to an exotic grass crop that requires huge inputs of pesticides and fertilizer to sustain.
Similarly the acreage devoted to soybeans is huge. According to the USDA, some 74.5 million acres was planted to soybeans in 2008. And despite the popularity of tofu and other soy based food products, less than 2% of the soybean crop is used for production of food for direct human consumption—with most of the annual soybean crop going for animal feed.

Hay and/or alfalfa are yet another significant crop for confined livestock production, primarily dairy cows and beef cattle. In the United States, approximately 59 million acres are planted to hay/alfalfa annually . To put this in perspective, Oregon is 60 million acres in size.

Though slightly better than a row crop like corn or soybeans as wildlife habitat, hay/alfalfa fields still represent a net loss in native biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Hay/alfalfa replace native vegetation, and often require excessive amounts of fertilizers, and are cut frequently destroying even their temporal value as hiding and nesting cover for many wildlife species.

Taken together these three animal feed crops cover a minimum area over 200 million plus acres. To put these figures of animal feed cropland into perspective, the amount of land used to grow the top ten fresh vegetables in the US ( asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, head lettuce, honeydew melons onions, sweet corn, and tomatoes) occupies about a million acres.

If you fly over or drive across Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and other Mid-western states, you’ll pass mile after mile of corn and/or soybean fields. Growing these crops has led to the near-extirpation of native plant communities like the tall grass prairie . Less than 4% of the native tall grass prairie remains and in some states like Iowa which has less than 0.1% of its original tall grass prairie left, tall grass prairie is functionally extinct. Plus “clean” farming eliminates what little natural vegetation used to remain as woodlots, fenceline strips, wetlands, and other natural areas that in the past supported native species with the agricultural matrix.

Destruction of native plant communities has had serious impacts on native biodiversity. Agriculture, including livestock production as well as crop production combined, is the number source for species endangerment in the country , and this number would be higher if you were to add in the species that are negatively impacted by exotic species, many of which increase due to habitat modification by agricultural production.

Agriculture is also the largest user of US water resources, with confined animal operations the largest per capita consumer of water. Grain fed beef production uses 100,000 gallons of water to produce every kg of food. By comparison, a similar kg of water-hungry rice uses only 2000 gallons of water, while potatoes require a mere 500 gallons. The primary mission of most western reservoirs is water storage for irrigated agriculture. Even in California which grows the bulk of the Nation’s vegetables and fruits, the largest consumers of irrigation water in the state by acreage is irrigated hay/alfalfa production.

Thus the environmental impacts associated with these dams and reservoirs such as barriers to salmon migration salmon, changes in water flows and flooding, are one indirect cost of factory farming operations. Add to this the direct dewatering of rivers for hay and other forage crop production is the loss of ground water supplies by pumping, particularly of the Ogalla aquifer. It’s easy to see why some argue that livestock production is the leading causes of water degradation .

Agriculture also degrades water in other more direct ways. Livestock produce 130 times the waste of the entire human population of the United States, and unlike the human waste which tend to be treated in sewage plants; most animal waste winds up on the land or in the water. Not surprisingly, livestock production is the leading cause of non-point surface water pollution accounting for 72% of the pollution in rives and 56% of the pollution in lakes.

Agriculture production is also the number one source for groundwater contamination in the Nation, with 49 states reporting high nitrates and 43 states reporting pesticide production attributed to agricultural practices .

Agricultural production is the largest source for soil erosion in the United States with current rates exceeding soil production rates by 17 times with 90% of US croplands losing soils above sustainable rates Since the majority of the nation’s cropland is growing animal feed, the majority of soil erosion is a direct consequence of this production.
Another indirect consequence of factory farming is the energy used to grow and transport feed. Animal protein production uses eight times the fossil fuel energy as growing vegetables or grass fed livestock Beef production was particularly energy costly, requiring 54 times the fossil fuel equivalent of non-grain fed sources of protein.

Lest we forget, livestock are a significant contributor to global warming. The world’s livestock produces 25% of the global greenhouse gases, with the waste lagoons of factory farms contributing another 5%. And according to a UN report, the global livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport.

Much, though not all, of these environmental impacts would be reduced or avoided altogether if factory farming and other kinds of confined animal production were eliminated. A shift to smaller, diverse farms, and a reduction, if not outright elimination of meat consumption, would both contribute to a huge reduction in environmental impacts of animal agriculture.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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  1. George, I’m certainly glad I don’t have to rely on you for my daily bread. No doubt your garden is “biodiverse” (weedy) and you patronize a doctor who uses leaches instead of penicillin.
    This article rehashes tired old arguments in favor of hunger for the masses.

  2. George:
    Thank you for this exceptionally useful summary. I have been collecting articles on food impacts for some time, and this is the best collection of facts (with perspectives) about factory farming that I have come across. Keep up the good work!
    – mbg

  3. Peggy Lopipero-Langmo

    This is a good summary of much of what is know of the impacts of large scale agricultural production but like most reporting on any scientific issues in the press, it lacks the all important references for where you are getting your data. Inclusion of references from peer-reviewed resources throughout the article would greatly improve your piece and the strength of the arguments given. Without them, such work would be regarded as an opinion piece rather than based on the latest available evidence. BTW, numbers on water use for beef production seems very high. Where did they come from? Providing this type of information for your readers would be very helpful.

  4. Thank you George for your informative summary. It is important that we know the impacts of our dietary choices. Would you please send me your list of references for the article?

  5. Maybe we should revert to the pre-industrialization era so we have enough wild grass for the population to live in sod homes and forage for food. The reality of it is we have an agricultural system that feeds America and other countries with quality food at reasonable prices. The food we send overseas feeds millions annually and would feed more if there was not the waste and theft involved from such wonderful agencies as the UN. The real agenda is in the last sentence about eliminating meat consumption, ask the 800 million more to be fed if they want tofu or meat.

  6. George: America has open borders, a piss poor immigration control process, and depends on birth control and abortion to limit population growth, mostly on white people. Immigrants don’t share our population concerns.

    Our problem is the we have factory intensity sex, and a resulting birth rate plus a high immigration rate. Plus, the people who come here are not from the secular family planning part of the world. I watch the Latina women with the special insight walk by my house hourly, most with a gaggle of kidlings toddling behind them and a buggy full of more being pushed ahead. Some walk with teenage daughters with the tell tale belly of life to come, pushed out ahead on them. They know that food comes from farms, and can be bought at the store with the Oregon Trail welfare debit card, the WIC card, as they walk from their subsidized apartments to gather their meal for the evening. And they are but one of the immigrant ethnicities intent on having a passel of kids. The lady who owned the Chinese restaurant down the road had three girls before she had a boy. Only then was she allowed to quit having kids. If the first one had been a boy, that would have been the end. But you need a boy to take care of you in your dotage. Girls are just a part of the sperm and egg crapshoot, the losing roll of the dice, that can be overcome with another roll, and another.

    It is about too many people George. Too many people. You know, or should know, that the breadbasket of Southern Africa, a scant 20 years ago was Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. And in the last 20 years, Zimbabwe has driven out the white farmers, taken the their land, and dribbled it out to absentee connected political allies of the dictator Mugabe, and is now small plot organically farmed by peasants, share croppers. And Zimbabwe now depends on imported food, while the population only remains stable due to out migration by the millions. No industrial farms in Zimbabwe today. And no much to eat. We could go there, if you want, in this country.

    The most productive of California lands are now without irrigation water as that water goes to flush toilets and fill swimming pools in SoCal. The orange groves and lemon groves are now ghettos, rife with social unrest. The outliers relegated to the urban/wildland interface pump water and sewage long distances to secure a safe place to live, with only the threat of wildfire to make life dicey. Salmon don’t have water, let alone habitat, to longer exist in the Sacramento/San Joaquin valley. Tomato fields have given way to suburbs, and food production is a waning industry as the water dries up on urban landscapes. 37 million people, and more arriving every day, drive the process. The impossibility of living in huge cities in the driest of deserts is the urbanized desert Southwest. Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and that string of pearls up to SF…Merced, Tulare, Fresno, Modesto….all living in a desert rainshadow in the perpetual sun, stealing water from wherever they can get it, boggles the mind.

    My most egregious example is the Lewistown Dam on the far northern end of California, the Trinity River, 2.4 million acre feet of stored water, that is sent from the Klamath River watershed to the Sacramento River, making hyrdo power a couple of times, and the sent to the far end of the Central Valley by canals, high lift pumps macerating the remaining salmon smolts, to fill swimming pools and to water subsidized cotton in a desert. Meanwhile, the Klamath River is the hotbed of Californians suing to take out the dams that make power for Oregon, and to limit irrigation by Oregon farmers. Hell, Oregon does not take water out of the watershed and send it 700 miles to where it takes two acre feet each year to suppress the salts from irrigation water and fertilizers, before a crop might be planted. You talk about wiping your butt on a hoop, that has to take the cake. You devalue the Trinity River salmon habitat (the Trinity is the major trib., half the water in the lower River, of the Klamath River, and the cold water trib to boot in a hot water impacted river system) by taking two thirds of its annual flow to move into the Sacramento watershed, and then pump it OUT of that watershed, into the San Joaquin watershed, killing countless fish in the macerating pumps, to bring in crops in the desert. About as dumb an idea, by the most most stupid and greedy Congressional delegation extant, California’s, that ever pooped behind a pair of tasseled pumps. This is Waxman, Pelosi, Boxer country. And the result is that there is no fishing for salmon in the ocean in California or most of of the Oregon coast, all the while the Columbia river produces more than a million returning fish each year, and the hue and cry from out of state enviros is to remove dams on the Clioumbia, that appears to have a viable salmon run. These are national leaders, of the most liberal government in US history, and they protect this kind of environmental degradation as a matter of course while trying to impose the Waxman energy insanity on our economy. Don’t worry about having enough to eat. With them, you won’t be able to afford to eat. Or maybe, we will eat each other, thus solving the population problem. Rid ourselves of some of those flatulent humans that are so hard on the atmosphere and environment.

    You are right George. We need more small farms. Southern Cal is the place to start. Honey bucket farming. Save the grey water, the piss bucket, we need to water the onions. Make every dwelling in SoCal produce produce. Or starve. That is the least they can do to justify their rape of our wilderness heritage, our atmosphere, our social customs and cultures. Make California do as THEY impose on the rest of us.

  7. Nothing on this site could ever be considered ‘journalism” or informed information. George has an opinion, nothing more. Here’s mine for what its worth. There are nearly 7 billion people on this earth, we have altered every land mass, we are changing the temperature, the earth is heating up. The next great extinction has begun. To suggest we go eco-vegan is just stupid. Live your life, cry for the children, its over.

  8. Bearbait

    You won’t get any argument from me over population growth. Ultimately that threatens to unravel any improvements we make in efficiency whether we are talking energy, food or anything else.

    The US population will be eventually be living in a sustainable fashion. It’s just a matter of how we accomplish this. If we keep on our current pathway, a finite planet will impose sustainability on us or we can try to reach it in a “soft landing”. But that is really the only choice–we aren’t going to make more water, more forests, more farmlands, etc..

    As an aside, most of the water in California does not go to flush toilets, water lawns,fill pools or anything else in the urban environment–even with 37 million. Ag still uses the bulk of all water in CAlifornia and livestock production uses the majority of that water. More than 50% of all the water in California goes towards production of two crops–irrigated hay and pasture–primarily to feed livestock. Even all the lemons, oranges, lettuce, etc. uses a fraction of the water as livestock feed production.

  9. Ideally we will move toward a grassfed beef structure in this country. Eliminating the need for the grains and switching the alfalfa/hay fields to a native grass prairie. Regarding native grass populations and the loss of our prairies, these once vast grasslands evolved with a critical dependence on huge herds of herbivores (bison, elk, etc) to intensely graze them. Without these herds we have learned that re-establishing the grasslands is extremely difficult. Also reviewing the history of Montana and the great cattle rush it is clear that in matter of 10-20 years the cattle destroyed nearly the entire state’s (then a territory) native prairie. There is some good work being done regarding intensive grazing practices and native grassland restoration. It is crucial work. Restoration is a new field and we are just starting to get a handle on technique and create a viable record of data. I know all the arguments against meat eaters and meat production but I will continue to eat meat, although 90% of my meat consumption is wild game. I believe that we will require cattle and sheep to restore the prairies, as well as possibly bringing back more bison (ala Ted Turner). My ranch is dedicated to restoring native grasslands and determining the best methods for long term success in prairie management. Establishment of the grasses can be very difficult with the weed seed bank with which we now contend. In addition my ranch is in a river bottom(and contains ~250 acres of wetlands) and we refrain from the use of herbicides and pesticides in an attempt to maintain a quality water supply and aquatic ecosystem. My point being that there are folks out here that understand the meat dilemma, choose to eat meat and do not need people(vegetarians and vegans) looking down on them for their educated choice. I eat meat and probably actively do more for the environment than any vegetarian I know.

  10. Ryan:

    I’m sure you do a great deal for the environment, and each of us has choices to make. Your meat diet is probably more than balanced by the other things you are doing to improve the land. So I commend you for your efforts.

    However, most people do not own large properties, and can not do the kind of land management that you apparently practice. Their best way most people can contribute to a better world is in the consumer choices they make, and a reduction in meat is one of the easiest ways to make a significant different in the environment.

    I would dispute with you that grass fed livestock are much better than factory farmed livestock. The impacts are different, but they are still significant. For instance, if we were to try to produce the same amount of meat by grass fed methods, we would have to convert even more lands to hay and pasture.

    Plus recent research shows that grass fed beef produces significantly more methane than grain fed beef. Again if we tried to maintain our meat diet dominated diets, we would actually have even more GHG coming from livestock than today.

    Third, native grasslands were grazed by a diversity of native herbivores. Grasshoppers, for instance, consume more biomass in Yellowstone than all the bison, elk, etc. put together. On native grasslands the greatest herbivory pressure came from native insects, nematodes, and even small rodents like prairie dogs. Add in pronghorn, bison, elk, geese, etc. you have a far more diverse array of species grazing than in a typical grass-fed beef operation. The point being that even grass fed beef operations are greatly simplified ecosystems. Even the best managed livestock operations do not emulate natural systems and native herbivores.

  11. Treehuggin' Cowgirl


    I always read your pieces preparing to disagree with, but you surprised me! Well done! I agree! I spent a few years as a vegetarian thanks to those California water statistics you quoted. Now I wholeheartedly enjoy my meat, but get much of my food from local sources.

    The flaw I do see in your argument is that until the recent price hikes, this country has grown more grain than its people want to eat. You talk about how much sweet corn is grown compared to livestock corn, but most of the corn we eat is corn syrup or the breading in hotpockets or doritos. They’ve found a million uses for corn, because we don’t eat enough of it canned or on the cob. Perhaps this overabundance of grains is part of why we’re such a meat heavy culture? They marketed beef, so the grain demand would increase?

    I’d rather see more diverse crops. How many people know how tasty leeks and parsnips are? Having a diet so heavily dependent on grains isn’t much better for us that one so heavily dependent on meat.

    So George, stick to consumption issues instead of trying to influence consumption through land management. I like you better that way 🙂

  12. Treehuggin' Cowgirl


    Really? You think Zimbabwe’s in trouble, because they’re trying to farm organically – not because they have a megalomaniac in power?

    Zimbabwe did kick out most of their white farmers, many of them violently and did give most of the land to absentee farmers who were politically connected. Your facts are right. But the reason they’re starving isn’t because they’re trying to farm on a smaller scale or organically. It’s because they have people farming who don’t how to farm. That simple. Don’t blame the dictator’s rhetoric for their problems, just blame the dictator.

  13. Dear Cowgirl

    The use of corn for sweetening, etc. is actually a bi-product of using grains for livestock feed. I.e. trying to squeeze the most out of the crop. In the absence of grain demand by livestock, a lot less corn, etc. would be grown.

    It’s not unlike the way reservoirs built around the West are typically constructed for irrigation water storage, but install some hydro electric generators to subsidize the irrigation water. Many of these reservoirs would never be built based on irrigation alone. The electricity is a by product that increases its economic efficiency.

  14. David Brewbaker DVM

    The Irish Potato Famine occured during the 1830s. Potato blight deystroyed the potato crop and over a million Irish starved to death. The landed English gentry would tour their property and the Irish would line the roads w/ green stains around their mouth from eating grass. Humans cannot sustain life from grazing but cattle, goats and sheep can. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is dependent on animal agriculture to survive. I would guess by extension all meat consumption world wide should be eleminated. The solution to world starvation would be immediate as billions would starve to death w/o animal agriculture. Thanks George for solving over population. Congratulations.

  15. Tree Huggin’ Cowgirl: Organic farming is done without fossil fuel or mined fertilizers and with no manufactured pesticides. That is the Zimbabwe subsistence farm today. No matter the political organization of Zimbabwe, it has gone from being a successful commercial exporting ag country to wooden sticks and the honey bucket ag. Just what the locavores want for the world. No improved rice with triple yields. No machinery or chemical fertilizers. One of the East African countries, Uganda perhaps, violated Pan African Ag Pacts, and gave every subsistence farmer a 40 lb bag of fertilizer. Their crime was they subsidized agriculture. The result was a country that went from a food importer to a food exporter. But not organic by any means. The farmers of Zimbabwe have the world’s most insane inflation in currency, which precludes fertilizer and rudimentary pesticides. So they starve and they allowed it to happen to themselves. The evil white man was kicked out, replaced by evil black men. So they starve. And, it is an indictment of organic farming. Organic farming cannot feed the world. Too many people with too low of yields.

    Food production is too important, too crucial, to personal and political survival, to be left in the hands of people with ecotopian dreams. I farm for the fresh market. The difference in price between organic and sustainable to the grower is not enough to make organic financially viable. One issue is shelf life. The organic food rots, gets moldy, in a very short time. The loss to the grocer is immense. The other issue is greatly reduced yields of salable product. So the price to the farmer reflects the net return to the grocer, after the wholesale and transportation costs are removed. All that effort to place something on the shelf that has to be bought in a day or two, and then it is pig food and the plastic clam is recycled. The US Marketing and Buying system does lend itself to short shelf life fresh food, and low production effort. So we have packaged food, and dried it, canned it or frozen it. And those markets return far less to the farmer on a per pound basis. If you have a safe fungicide program, you can grow a fresh market blueberry, a better looking berry, and have it live on the shelf for more than a day or two. Maybe 5 days. But that is critical to grocer success, and the fruit being sold.

    I buy a bagged, washed, prepared salad mix complete with flowers and other herbs, at the Saturday market where I live. Two bucks. Two salads each for two people. Fresh, clean, wonderful. I don’t ask how it is grown. But the market is one day a week, and two bags just means that one salad or two is a little long of tooth before the next market. I grow a small garden. And I grow a half million pounds of blueberries each year for sale in the fresh markets of the West. I have an integrated pest management program that is not so exclusive that I can use crop oil and Bt to fight winter moth and oblique banded leaf rollers. I am using more organic fertilizers than chemical, and less chemical every year as I try to bring balance to soil farmed for 100 years. But there is no way to market that amount of fruit out of the back of a pickup truck. Most of ours goes into controlled atmosphere cold storage, and is metered out by the packer in the fall as the last of the fresh market US fruit, until the South American fruit begins to show in the market place in late October.

    Ag is about scale, and having acres to match the inputs, in a competitive market with world wide competition that does not have to be constrained on input use, labor laws, fair trade practices, food safety restraints, and EPA declarations made by zealots cultivated by the politics of power. US Ag is a stationary target in a world of moving targets. We have seen, dramatically, to what extent the Chinese will poison food just to save a buck, make a profit. Hard for US ag to compete in a world of moving targets, with a currency being diminished daily by the Sun God and his worshipers, as they throw money at problems created by their own kind. I suppose our low currency value will drive up the price of gold and silver, an incentive to prospect and mine on public lands, and the fact that TARP and US Motor Car Company, the Congressional insurance company AIG, are the real reason for the mining. They created the demand, the prices, that drive the mining process. Hopefully, a low value dollar will gain good food export prices for US Ag, as it will drive up the price of inputs, machinery and fuel, which spells doom in a domestic market with fewer consumer dollars.

    Farmers need to be linear thinkers, fighting the unseen crop devaluations and ruination at all times. It is hard for my well educated, knowing crop advisor to look at my aphids which his training would say to spray and soon, and have me tell him that there are not enough of them yet, to feed the lady beetles, spiders, glasswings, and other beneficials that are slowly building their population in the fields. And in two weeks, hopefully, he will come, and all that is left is beneficials’ poop and exoskeletons of aphids past. It happens so fast, and so completely as to boggle the mind. He has become a believer, and knows that the process begins in winter, and goes on all year. And I would use a pesticide to preserve a crop under attack by something exotic or new. No problem. I am an integrated pest manager because it saves a lot of money, and has far less impact on soil organisms and runoff to the streams. But mostly it is about the money. If it were to come at a huge cost, I couldn’t do it. Nor should I. I have a responsibility to the farm owner and his family.

    During the Hippy Generation, Bill Walton was the Portland NBA lottery draft choice. UCLA big man who could change a team, a season, and brought Portland their only NBA championship. Walton became a macrobiotic diet follower, and disavowed meat and all that, under the spell of some food guru. The short story is that Walton ran out of gas, began to be hurt, did get hurt bad, had a hard time healing, and was never again the man he was before his attempt to be a kinder, gentler consumer of world resources. In World War II, and before in the CCC camps, the issue was hugely underweight young men. They were starved to the point of not being able workers or soldiers. So the Government had to first feed them. Food rationing was about getting enough food into our military so as to have a reliable and strong soldier, sailor, airman. And it was Land Grant college Ag Depts that drove the process to provide more and better food. Looking at America today, they did get the job done. Overdone, as a matter of fact. We have gone from being a starved out under fed country to an obese one. Like my soil, the effort needs to be seeking balance. You don’t do that by regulating agriculture. You do that by changing the way people eat and getting them to exercise. Why a school can develop a brilliant mind and then lose it all too soon to a dietary problem, a disease of overeating, does not compute. Ag is not the problem. People’s choices are the problem. Even in Zimbabwe.

  16. Well one thing is for sure this “writer” knows alot about nothing. I respect the difference in opinions but if you want to support organic/ natural farming fine but be prepared to be disappointed and hungary. Lets just say we stop planting corn, soybeans and alfalfa and replace that with vegetables. Who is going to harvest that produce? Most of those crops can’t be mechanically harvested so who is going to pick them? Currently there is about 1 million laborers (about 1 per acre) that work in the veg and fruit industry, 70% which are undocumented. So if we plant say 30 million acres of veggies instead of corn and soybeans are we going to import 30 million immigrants to pick that produce? The simple things liberals put no thought into is amazing! Go ahead and support natural/organic farming it doesn’t bother me but don’t push your radical ideals on my livelihood. Just because I feed some corn to my cows to get a tasty, well-marbled steak isn’t wrong, especially if that corn isn’t human food grade. Organic/natural farming is and will always be less productive. Also please stop using the same old tired facts from the UN global warming report that some people even at the UN doesn’t think is right. Better yet stop bashing on hardworking farmers and ranchers that are just trying to make a living and feed their families (while feeding a large number of the worlds population too).

  17. Jorge

    The mid west “corn” belt could just as easily be growing sweet corn to feed people or for that matter, much of that same region will grow wheat, soy (a lot of soy is grown there anyway), etc. All of which could be turned into food directly feeding people instead of cows. If you want to starve the world, use the best farmland in the world for growing cow food. That’s what we are doing–and by the way–destroying the soil at the same time. We have reached “peak soil” as much as we have reached “peak oil.”

  18. Mr. Wuerthner

    I will challenge you to a debate about agriculture any day, any time. You have missed sooooo many facts and variables to crop production, processing, exports, technology etc. it is unbelievable. 100,000 gal of water per 2.2 lbs of beef……..impossible.

    Study up, you pick the spot.

  19. Well, I’m much more inclined to eat a pound of beef than seven pounds of tofu. Might not live as long, but by golly, I’ll enjoy it more and remember more of it.

  20. Dave:

    Thanks for your comment. At least it is honest in that you acknowledge the health risks associated with consumption of large amounts of beef. It is no different than if you choose to smoke cigarettes. Your choice, so long as you know the full consequences of your choices. But the public needs to know the full costs of those choices–which I would argue they are not getting–just Big Ag’s perspective.

  21. geo: my grasslands still support grasshoppers, most native insects, rodents and nearly every species of herbivore in the region. In fact I have the largest native wildlife population in the area yet it does not appear to be enough to properly manage the grasslands. I have tried to take the range out of grazing but with poor results. My grasses are grazed by an extremely diverse group of animals and as much as possible by native creatures. As you can tell my goal here is grassland restoration. Raising the proper number of stock seems the best answer to my problem. Unfortunately I cannot bring back the migrating herds, although my populations of insects, rodents, waterfowl and other birds is probably near historic levels. The herds of megafauna did more than eat grass. they planted seed, turned ground, fertilized the soil and more. these are extremely complicated systems, try to manage one. my masters work in wildlife biology took me away from agriculture for many years. in fact i still feel that agriculture is the single most environmentally destructive enterprise man has undertaken. In this i am mainly talking about plowed ground. forget sweet corn, lets work on the return of the short and tall grass prairie. the great plains of the US were the most amazing ecosystem on the planet. the loss of habitat and destruction of soils by farming has been the a leading cause of all our environmental problems. i do not care if you are an organic or conventional farmer, or follow the practices of Rudolph Steiner. i happen to eat organic produce and the occasional organic pig, chicken or grass fed cow. i buy locally. most of the problem is in how people live their lives. i believe in a reduction in meat production but not elimination. how about grassfed beef and lamb raised for grassland restoration and people pay a premium price for it at the market. if mcdonalds wants to serve grassfed burgers make them pay. that is the problem. people in this country do not care about their food or where it comes from. i am a restoration ecologist and i truly believe that grazing stock are necessary to bring back an ecosystem that i long to see, the great plains grasslands. thanks george

  22. George Wuerthner


    We’re close in agreement. I’d have to see what the exact situation you have involves, but like anything, your goals, and your efforts are in the right direction. If we could move that way in a significant way, there may be possibilities. Thanks for your efforts.

  23. Rich Americans arguing about the ethics of their food prefrences. This is beyond stupid.

  24. Mr. Tweester: When 30% of the GDP is “financials”, you have to know most people have too little to do, and too much time to do it in. That was the playground economy in the 1940s &50s;: taking each others marbles and baseball cards. Was it no wonder that generation got into Beanie Babies? Maybe we should plant the next Beanie Babies. Or is that what this conversation is about? Organic beanies babies.

    Quite simply, we are too many, and in that too many exist vast differences of want and need, and that is the interface of mankind that will kill many more than fire, starvation or disease. Mainly, we will find myriad was to off each other. As we have for so long.

    It will not be genetically modified corn that kills most people. It will be the bullets and bombs of their government and their police. Unless, of course, it is possible to turn them loose on someone else whose estate might be useful to the “deciders.”

    But it does make the time pass to contemplate our navels, and the great issues of our times and places. Do the grow “Defeat Gardens” in Detroit? Did you ever notice is is mostly ex-Yuppies selling food to present Yuppies at the Farmers Markets, the Saturday Markets? Almost like some are deigned able and chosen to grow organic carrots for the cubicle crowd, and thus cut away from a sinking ship of conventional bidness to go forward and make the new world for those still struggling in the old.

    You can use your WIC and Food Stamps at the Farmers Markets, but there are few who do. No Cheese Pops, frozen pizza or diet cola for sale. But the legislative intentions are good. The generationally non-working should be able to lounge in good health. It saves on health care costs.

  25. Yup. I need to stay off this site for a good long while, to depressing. I get real busy this time of year and should pay attention to business anyway. When I check back in 6 months it will be the same crap.

  26. Geo,

    Looks like you dont know too much about agriculture either. You don’t harvest sweet corn with a combine, not if your eating it fresh. It doesnt keep as well as field corn if you dry the kernels for later use. Its a good thing we use the best soil in the world for alot more uses then growing “cow food”. For example ethanol production, biodiesel, human food production, ruminant (cattle) and monogastric (pigs,poultry) animal food production, and countless household items made from corn and soy. Depending on your defination of the midwest most of it is a tad too humid for the best wheat production. Last time I checked people can eat corn and soybeans even though soybeans have a lot more hormones then even the most drugged up piece of beef. I will find the figures and hopefully post them later this week. Also dont bash on beef its healthly in a balanced diet that doesn’t mean a 10lb fast food burger at each meal. Conventional ag conserves soil too, examples crop rotation, no-till, green cover crops, crp and water quality conservation programs and legume fertilization/rotation to name a few. Don’t blame conventional ag blame irresponsible land managers for soil erosion. Organic or natural ag production isn’t any better at soil conservation they don’t have any special magic that conventional ag doesn’t have plus organic/natural is less efficent. Get your facts straight before you try to bash real farmers and ranchers with your liberal slander. Like John Wayne said once, “Big mouth don’t make a big man”.


    I agree with your grazing animal ideas I just dont agree with the organic part. Using technology you can get more from less, conserving more of our resources. I have read that organic production can be up to 40% less efficient then conventional ag and I have a trouble leaving that much production on the table unused when people around the world are starving. On our ranch we have large biodiversity because we are pretty much the only well-managed grazing lands left. The city is encoarching on all sides of our place except to the north where we are bordered by another large ranch and a small park/nature reserve. We protect the wildlife and practice conservation but we still use modern ag tech to get more from less.

    Mr. Twister,
    Don’t get discouraged, I know its hard not too since it seems like there is less and less ag people around. Hold your head up high with pride.

  27. Who would prefer to eat a bowl full of grass over a nice juicy steak? Fat chance the masses are going to give up eating meat to save the world from self distruction by cows and chickens. The authou of this article needs to get out more any open his eyes to life in the real world.

  28. Ryan:

    There are many reasons not to eat your “nice juicy steak” including the ecological/environmental costs, the ethical questions that many raise about raising animals for slaughter. However, one of the biggest reasons may have to do with personal health. The evidence is overwhelming–a heavy meat diet leads to all kinds of health consequences that are avoided by a diet largely based more on fruit, grains and greens.

    However, given all the inputs associated with factory farming, I would venture to suggest that it is not sustainable in the long run.

  29. Maybe the real problem is that we still eat to good, and live too long. Maybe overeating is not such a bad deal, because if we all ate according the nutritionists, and lived another ten years, we would still use up the world’s resources way too fast. Again, I think we ought to be seriously working on the retroactive vasectomy concept. So have to wonder whether eating meat is as bad as too many living too long. Or, if we all became vegetarians, would that mean we have cows wandering the streets like India? Or just wolves, cougars, bears, looking for the elusive fat kid, as all the game is gone.