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Monday, April 01, 2002


In this fascinating and (for the NY Times) surprisingly unbiased account of the life of a modern day factory-produced cow, Michael Pollen examines the pros and cons of raising cattle on corn feed and antibiotics. Most interesting is his observation that many of the ills of the modern cattle industry are aided by the extremely cheap price of corn, which in turn is made possible "thanks to federal subsidies and ever-growing surpluses." I haven't checked his figures, but Pollen claims that "the price of corn ($2.25 a bushel) is 50 cents less than the cost of growing it." Thus, cows raised on factory farms in the U.S. are fed huge volumes of corn, despite the fact that corn-fed cattle must be kept on a constant diet of antibiotics to counter infections that the corn-based diet produces in cows' complex digestive systems which traditionally handled mostly grass.

The cheap price in corn also comes at a huge cost in oil usage (another casualty of the modern government-subsidized farm), leading Pollen to say "We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine," though he also notes, "Whatever else you can say about industrial beef, it is remarkably cheap, and any argument for changing the system runs smack into the industry's populist arguments. Put the animals back on grass, it is said, and prices will soar."

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