Chapter 4 Summary
In “The Feedlot,” Michael Pollan’s investigation into the industrial food chain leads him to Garden City, Kansas, an industrial feedlot. Pollan makes several important distinctions, including the difference between solar-powered food and fossil fuel–powered food, between systems that produce food without problems and systems that produce food problematically, and between economic logic and evolutionary logic. In each case, Pollan concludes that the feedlot has produced more problems than solutions.
For corporate corn interests like ADM and Cargill, the principal advantage of the feedlot is that it forces cattle to consume a diet that is three-fifths corn. As Pollan explains in “The Farm,” corn is currently being produced very cheaply, although its reliance on synthetic nitrogen means that it relies on fossil fuel energy rather than solar energy. Cattle have evolved to eat grasses, a relationship that benefits the grass as cows spread grass seeds and prevent shrubs and trees from encroaching on grassland habitats. However, the feedlot largely eliminates grass from the diet of cattle in preference of cheap corn. Corn also has the advantage of fattening cattle faster, which means that cattle can be brought to a high weight more quickly. It takes less than two years to bring cattle to slaughter now; decades ago, it could take as long as five years.
However, although this process may seem economically efficient, it produces several problems. Perhaps the most pressing problem for Garden City, Kansas, is that it is left with reeking manure pits. On the farm, Pollan explains, farmers could use the manure of their cattle as fertilizer, creating a closed loop. However, the manure produced at the feedlot is too high in phosphorous and nitrogen to be used as fertilizer. Furthermore, the movement of cattle from a decentralized population to a concentrated animal feeding operation has produced medical problems for the cattle. Whenever a population is concentrated, disease follows. However, disease is controlled in the feedlot through the extensive use of antibiotics, a “solution” that has led to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
Although these practices seem to make a great deal of money for the corporate interests that profit from concentrated animal feeding operations, and they also produce relatively cheap meat for the population to consume, Pollan cautions that these practices are not without hidden costs. Farmers now have a fertility problem that requires them to use chemical fertilizers to grow their crops. The feedlots produce pollution through the concentration of waste, not to mention the medical threat posed by drug-resistant bacteria. The entire system pushes the industrial food chain to rely on fossil fuels to produce synthetic nitrogen for corn feed and the transportation of cattle rather than the solar energy represented in grasses that cattle evolved to eat. Pollan concludes that the
corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution.