"Think about something else.”

I got that a lot as a kid. My imagination ran to worst-case scenarios. I’d seen newsreel footage of Nazi death camps, so I knew what people were capable of. Convinced that nuclear holocaust was imminent, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to marry and have a family, much less become a person obsessed late in life with the world’s food system. I could not have guessed that instead of destroying ourselves we’d more than double our numbers, or that our penchant for hierarchy and coldblooded efficiency would allow us to believe that replacing traditional, small, biodiverse farming with a system predicated on cruelty to animals was a righteous cause.

“Think about what?” I’d ask, distraught over the latest H-bomb blast in the Pacific.

“How about the Nowaks’ place?” my mom would suggest. The Nowaks owned the last farm standing in our mostly suburban neighborhood. “Think about that silly rooster strutting around like he owns it. Think about the baby pigs.”

By 1960 the Nowaks had sold most of their farm to developers and were down to 40 acres of pasture and some row crops. You could smell the manure long before you got to the bend in the road where asphalt gave way to gravel and the farm popped improbably into view. It was clear even to us kids that the pastel-colored shoebox houses, as we called them, would soon devour the landscape whole.

My parents never talked about the way things were changing under our noses. They’d bought their 1930s-vintage colonial for its hilltop views of farm country, but the housing boom was a good thing, part of the postwar prosperity afforded by the new industrialization and economies of scale. Like most of the men in our neighborhood, my dad was a war vet. The war was a powerful bond. Plus, the war effort had produced much of the technology now being rejiggered for peacetime purposes.

What we couldn’t see from our lofty perch was how industry was reshaping rural America. We didn’t know that farm animals and the people who raised them were all getting the same pink slip. Their way of life was over. The farmers were moving to cities to find new occupations, the animals to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — known nowadays as animal concentration camps to their increasingly shrill critics.

Before the war changed everything, American agriculture was run on the time-honored assumption that farm animals and food crops were codependent. But with the new methods of fertilizing — chemicals instead of manure — the animals were no different from the monoculture crops that replaced the diverse assortment of plants that used to keep the soil healthy and the water pure. They were commodities. In fact, meat production was fast becoming the whole point of agriculture.

About half the corn grown today in the United States is used to feed animals. (Corn syrup and industrial uses account for less than a tenth; the rest is used to make ethanol.) Meat producers see rising global meat consumption as inevitable. If we don’t feed the world meat, they argue, China will.

Most of us tune out the scary byproducts of our modern food system — obesity and related illnesses, polluted air and water, food-borne disease — until they threaten our own health or that of our children. A group of activists in Iowa is hoping that evidence linking foul air to a sharp rise in asthma will finally make people care where meat comes from. They are taking their case to the Environmental Protection Agency. They have no choice, they say. Their state’s regulatory process has been subverted by food-industry lobbyists, whose latest attempt to stifle controversy is a so-called ag-gag law that effectively keeps uninvited guests from entering CAFOs on the grounds that their goal isn’t to protect animals but to put confinements out of business.

Meat producers just want to keep their operations out of the public eye. To that end, they’ve benefited enormously from the ongoing depopulation of America’s small towns and the desperate straits of those left behind. Migrant workers, many undocumented, are even less likely to protest low wages and horrific conditions as locals with no other job prospects. The New York Times recently covered a proposed 6,800-hog operation in Arkansas. All those who spoke against the project’s unaccountably swift approval process, citing in particular its potential to pollute a protected scenic river, were environmentalists and scientists. The reporter turned to area residents — self-described “hillbillies” — for balance. Whatever pigs they’d seen on farms hereabouts in the past hadn’t been a problem, the locals said. What’s 6,000 more?

Given the industry’s low profile, it’s not surprising that most city dwellers still imagine that the pigs lounging in their comfy pens at state fairs are the same pigs whose meat ends up in the processed cold-cuts sold at Wal-Mart. There are a few old-fashioned farms left, enough to supply what I’ve come to think of as window dressing for an industry that keeps consumers clueless because the truth might spoil their appetites.

Why would a person want to know that the succulent pork chop he or she is about to tie into came from an animal whose entire life was spent standing on top of a shallow pit containing its own excrement? Contrary to their reputation, pigs are fastidious animals. If the filth doesn’t drive them crazy, the stench will. In fact, confinement fumes are so toxic they’d wipe out every pig in the place if a power outage were to shut down the huge fans that keep the air moving. Hog operations always have a backup generator, just in case.

Undercover investigations of factory farming by the Humane Society of the United States spilled over the pages of Rolling Stone last month. Literally. Its exposé was illustrated with ghoulish images of innocent creatures in pain and Photoshopped pools of blood. Sensational, yes — and that was the whole point. Anyone who saw those pictures might think twice before skipping over a recent Star Tribune story headlined: “Minnesota meatpacker charged a fourth time for inhumane processing.”

Triple J Family Farms is a feedlot operation in Buffalo Lake, Minn. Each charge involved the mishandling of equipment designed to kill cows painlessly, with predictable results for the victims. Perhaps as a result of its first skirmish with inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the company had promised in 2012 to expand its operation, adding 200 jobs in a town that badly needs them.

The USDA doesn’t have a monopoly on complacency. In the face of overwhelming evidence that meat producers’ overuse of antibiotics poses a human health risk, the Food and Drug Administration asked CAFOs to voluntarily limit this practice. Why no outright ban? The agency’s response to that excellent question was telling: Legal battles would delay action indefinitely, and the situation is urgent.

As to extreme animal cruelty — hitting cows over the head with 2-by-4s, poking pigs with electric prods — the industry contends that such acts are rare and therefore manageable with minor adjustments. Many CAFOs have stopped using gestation crates, for instance, one of the more notorious methods deployed to control animals’ natural inclination to protest claustrophobic confinement by attacking each other. Isolated incidents work to the meat producers’ advantage, in a way. By focusing on spectacularly cruel practices and the odd renegade worker whose mean streak is captured on film, the industry creates the impression that cramming several thousand animals together in a poorly ventilated cesspool is perfectly sane and obscures the fact that no matter how efficiently animals are raised, meat is vastly more expensive, damaging to the environment and unhealthy for humans than foods derived from plants.

CAFOs exist on the reasonable premise that even though people are animals, animals are not people. We’re higher in the food chain. We eat animals, but only in the most unusual circumstances do animals eat us. Farm animals never do, because over the millennia submissiveness has been bred into them by humans. Domesticated livestock evolved at our behest to be our agrarian partners. We give the animals food and shelter. We get in return meat and dairy products and manure and much more. Their submissiveness makes them helpless in the face of this new mechanized system. They are unable to protest their exile from the open-air farm environment to this hell on Earth that is the CAFO.

Wendell Berry has been writing about the demise of rural America ever since he gave up a good job in New York City to move home to the family farm in Kentucky and receive the wisdom that was his birthright. A longtime nature writer and an accomplished poet, he says he became an activist because nothing else has moved the needle against society’s deep-seated desire to deny the obvious. He sees the way corporations spin and twist the facts about the consequences of their war on the environment as nothing short of diabolical. Nature’s way of doing things is just the opposite, he contends. Honest and true. “Sacred” is the word Berry uses. He calls man-made systems that sanction the humiliation and torture of other living creatures acts of desecration.

Taking an animal that nature gave a metabolism that let it live comfortably outdoors even in winter, and a digestive system that let it thrive on pasture-grown grass, and a temperament that let it coexist peacefully with other farm animals and even its human predators, and sharp hooves that let it work the soil and keep it enriched and teeming with organic life — taking that animal out of nature to Wendell Berry represents a monstrous misreading of Gospel. He calls it a crime against God.


Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at bonnie@gardenletter.com.