Author talks dark side of industrial farming

By SARAH Y. KIM | December 1, 2016


ITamar K./Public Domain Professor Silbergeld discussed the harmful effects of industrial farming and contracting in agriculture.

Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health studies, epidemiology and health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke about her critically acclaimed book, Chickenizing Farms and Food, at Barnes & Noble on Nov. 20.

Her book was published earlier in August, and gives insight into the harmful impacts of “chickenization,” a term coined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to label the modern contract-based factory farming system that pervades agricultural production.

“This whole process, the whole transformation of chicken production into an industrial activity, came first, and we call that chickenization,” Silbergeld said. “When another industry is turned over, it’s called chickenization. Right now there is a lot of discussion on the chickenization of dairy, which is succumbing to this model as well.”

She outlined how the chicken industry quickly evolved in the early 20th century into a contract-based factory system.

“This was an amazing, rapid change that has had all kinds of social and socioeconomic impacts on rural society as well as urban society,” she said. “By about 1937, almost all the chickens in the United States were produced through these contract systems, with fewer and fewer industries.”

The chickenization of the chicken industry was accomplished through vertical integration, a system in which one or few entities control all aspects of production.

“Someone like Perdue sits at the top of this,” she said. “The chicks are bred by Perdue. The feeds are grown by Perdue. The feeds are supplied by Perdue. The trucks and the workers that go pick up the chickens from the farm are Perdue. All aspects of production are controlled by one entity.”

Silbergeld, who grew up in New Hampshire and describes herself as “the granddaughter of farmers,” opened with an explanation of how her background influenced her writing.

“We lived on the edge of the capital of New Hampshire, which at the time was a town of 18,000 surrounded by farms,” she said. “I began to rethink that whole experience, and I came away with two thoughts, one of which really informed this book, which is that farming is not a romantic pastoral activity.”

According to Silbergeld, people today, most of whom have not experienced farm work themselves, tend to criticize modern farming techniques on the basis that it is too “technological,” compared to their romanticized vision of farming in the past.

“The most of farming in human civilizations — it was done by slaves,” she said. “This was not a preferred activity. We are now at a time where we’re looking back on the notion of farming and of rural life that never really existed. That vision of what farming is interferes with our ability to understand what has happened to farming over the last 120 years.”

Silbergeld went on to discuss how her experiences within farming communities during the latter half of the 20th century helped her understand how agriculture underwent such transformation.

“We’ve had people leaving farms,” she said. “As soon as human settlements began to accumulate into towns and small cities, people have wanted to move to towns. And that’s a process that has only speeded up.”

Another major reason why farming has transformed, she said, was the decrease in the number of laborers on farms.

“I remember many of my family in New Hampshire went to work in the textile mills of Manchester, New Hampshire,” she said. “And they were part of that group that experienced one of the great shocks of working class people when the mills in New England — literally overnight — locked the doors and moved to South Carolina.”

When beginning her book, Silbergeld said she came to the conclusion that her primary motive for writing the book was to understand the source of modern agriculture’s problems, rather than using her book as a means of advocacy.

“The more I looked at agriculture the more I realized I didn’t know how we got to where we are,” she said. “How did we end up with these very intensive industrial scale modes of production for crops and the animals we eat? How did we end up with the particular and peculiar structure that goes on in these industries which is known as vertical integration? How did we have a contract system? Why do we have a contract system? What has happened to the former notion of the farmer as a small-scale entrepreneur?”

She also realized she had to form her own thoughts and opinions on food and agriculture. After some time, she decided that her fundamental thought about food and agriculture is that every person deserves access to safe and affordable food.

“Now that sounds pretty apple pie,” she said. “But actually that shuts off a lot of pathways that one might go in order to find solutions and improvements to the current state of affairs in agriculture which certainly needs that. For instance, it really means that I pay a lot of attention and I paid a lot of attention to solutions that result in higher prices for food.”

In response to arguments that food can be made more affordable and accessible through changes in food distribution, Silbergeld asserted that the only way to lower food costs is through increased food production. A food system based on local production, she argues, is not practical.

“[A food system based on local production] can never produce enough food to feed people at any cost,” she said. “This absolutely has to be recognized. Farmers’ markets, local networks of production cannot feed cities. More than half the global population currently lives in cities. Most of the hungry people in the world live in cities.”

Silbergeld further elaborated that local markets, while a potential source of food for the wealthy top one percent, cannot sustain the average person in the States due to its higher price levels, something that she did not grasp until after she had begun the book.

Chickenizing Farms and Food focuses largely on the production of animals for human consumption, partly in response to the rising popularity of meat-based protein across the globe. While acknowledging that this trend is a cause for concern, due in part to its negative environmental impacts, Silbergeld emphasized that attempting to alter people’s diets is not really speaking to the problem.

“It’s kind of a given within public health that while we hope to be able to change behavior for the better, for individuals and populations’ health, we take people as we find them,” she said.

To clarify this statement, she discussed the way in which the rise of HIV/AIDS was addressed.

“Many people said: ‘Well, why don’t we tell people to just stop having this unprotected homosexual sex? I mean this is just a behavioral problem, isn’t it?’” she said. “And to his credit, [George W.] Bush was persuaded by public health officials and scholars who said, ‘No, that’s not how we stop this epidemic. We have to treat this epidemic because it is now spreading.’”

While she believes efforts to shape diets are important, she does not believe they are necessarily an effective means of addressing the problem, since generally the majority of people continue to consume meat despite exposure to information on the harms of meat consumption.

“To go around and tell the world’s population they should not really want to eat animal protein, they should continue eating much lower on the food chain, if you will, when they don’t want to do that, is not really speaking to the problem,” she said.

Silbergeld wrote her book with the intention of making it solution-oriented, a choice she initially struggled with.

“This was not going to be Food, Inc.,” she said. “This was going to be a book that had solutions.”

She eventually concluded that if we want to continue feeding the world’s population without forcing them to alter their diets, it is important to first and foremost recognize that agriculture is an industry.

“Agriculture is still trading throughout the world on this notion that it is not an industry,” she said. “It is the only enterprise where children are employed, where there is very little control on pesticides, where they don’t have to deal with their waste products, where they don’t have to guarantee a safe product. Occupational inspection cannot go inside those operations. That’s because they’re all talking about: ‘But we’re agriculture!’”

In regards to other forms of agriculture, Silbergeld continued to emphasize the importance of recognizing that food must go on being produced in a factory system in order to feed the world’s population.

“The first thing we must agree on is that this is an industry, because that’s what it is, and we must therefore say, ‘You’re subject to how we regulate industries,’” she said. “There is nothing that cannot be changed in the way that this industry operates if we treat it as an industry.”

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