Contracting Madmen

 The Epidemic of Agribusiness

Meat diets are irrational, in that they are a wasteful use of the earth’s resources. For example, approximately sixteen pounds of grain are required to produce one pound of beef. Organic farming systems are at least as productive as “modern” practices that rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, genetically modified commercial seeds, and mechanization. In comparison to industrialized agriculture, organic farms can achieve superior farm yields, are relatively drought resistant, and do not rely on petroleum-based inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides or diesel-fueled farm machinery. Moreover, the consequences of the meat culture include diseases such as bird flu and mad cow, which are costly to contain and may also pose a threat to human life.

The underlying principle of cow protection is to engage and employ bulls to work the land, implying that cows are bred only to the point where the bovine population meets the demand for draft power, rather than the demand for the byproducts, e.g., milk. In sharp contrast, raising cows for the purpose of producing milk is an egregious error – the cow will not produce milk (at least not significant quantities) unless it has calves, and since half will be male, the result is an excess bovine population that is costly to support. Farming practices that do not engage the bulls will essentially condemn them to the slaughterhouse, since they will have no economic value other than their meat.

After calibrating the growth of the bovine herd to the demand for draft power, the byproducts such as manure, urine, and milk can be put to good use. In India, cow dung, for instance, is widely burned as a cost-effective fuel in rural areas. It would be very costly to replace manure with natural gas or coal, and moreover, it is completely irrational to intensify dependence on these nonrenewable energy sources that are likely to continue experiencing sharp price increases. The value of cow urine-based pesticides provides further evidence of the utility of cow protection. For example, in Tamil Nadu, India, a group at the Vazhviyal Multiversity has produced an herbal pest repellent from knowledge derived from Ayurveda. The repellent is prepared from the leaves of five plant species not eaten by cattle. These can vary from place to place, but ideally the repellent contains neem, tulsi, and datura. The leaves are collected, cut into pieces and pounded. This is then placed in an earthen pot filled with cow urine and allowed to ferment in a compost pit for 10 days. The fermented solution is filtered with a cotton cloth, and water is added. This solution can be used as an herbal spray, but it should be used before the insects appear [1].

The demand for food and fiber can be met through organic farming systems in which bovine animals are bred to obtain bulls that are used to provide draft power. Slaughter of cows falls far short of a holistic solution. Agribusiness conglomerates, such as Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, and Novartis, incorrectly argue that organic yields are low. Based on an ongoing long-term comparison study at UC Davis, organic yields were at least as high as conventional farming for all crops tested: tomato, safflower, corn, and bean [2]. Additionally, a study comparing organic and conventional apple production in California’s Central Coast showed higher yields as well as higher returns under the organic systems [3]. Another recent study compared organic, conventional, and integrated apple production systems in Washington state over a 6 year period, and found that the organic system was more profitable, had similar yields, better tasting fruit, and was more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient than the other systems [4].

Agribusiness conglomerates, such as Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, and Novartis, incorrectly argue that organic yields are low. Based on an ongoing long-term comparison study at UC Davis, organic yields were at least as high as conventional farming for all crops tested: tomato, safflower, corn, and bean.

Organic agriculture can play an important role in averting future crop failures both in the US and in the rest of the world. The Rodale Institute compared conventional and organic systems for corn and soybeans in a study know as the Farm Systems Trial. Although yields were comparable during years of normal rainfall, the key result is that organic practices markedly improved the quality of the soil, thereby allowing soybean yields to remain relatively high even in the face of a drought. Unlike conventional farming, organic practices allow the soil to retain moisture more efficiently, while the higher content of organic matter also makes organic soil less compact so that root systems can penetrate more deeply to find moisture [5].

Not only is organic farming better able to withstand droughts, but it is also relatively immune to the inevitable shortages of petroleum supplies. Therein lies an important competitive advantage of organic. Industrialized agriculture, in which vast amounts of land are plowed, planted, and harvested using diesel or gasoline powered farm machinery in place of human and animal labor, is not a sustainable substitute for cow protection. Commercial agriculture is particularly vulnerable to rising costs of petroleum, including natural gas, which will be depleted at approximately the same time as oil. The International Energy Agency [6] estimated that conventional oil production could be peaking anytime between now and 2020, while Campbell & Laherrere [7] had put the year before 2010. It is important to note that even before we reach this maximum, the costs of extracting petroleum would continue to rise sharply, as oil companies are compelled to tap into oil deposits that are less accessible.

Intensive animal agriculture, a production model that is being steadily adopted throughout the world, is a vast user of fossil fuel, mainly for the production of feed. For example, in the U.S., one ton of oil (2000 pounds or 6.75 barrels) is required to produce one steer weighing 1250 pounds [8]. One acre of corn production in the U.S. requires approximately 140 gallons of oil [9], and if the corn goes to livestock, only about one-fifth of the protein is returned as food, and four-fifths of it is lost [10]. The adoption of new seed varieties has intensified the dependence on petroleum-based chemical inputs. Natural gas is an ingredient for manufacturing the chemical fertilizers that support high crop yields in modern agriculture, while oil is a raw material for producing pesticides. The high yielding seed varieties (products of biotechnology) are more productive because they respond strongly to petroleum-based chemical fertilizer. However, corn yields would fall dramatically from 130 bushels per acre to approximately 30 bushels, in the absence of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum powered irrigation [11].

Industrial livestock farming systems are in fact incubation centers for disease outbreaks. Seventy five percent of emerging diseases in humans are of animal origin [12], and humans are at risk of being killed in large numbers by cross-species transmission of illnesses between, pigs, humans, birds, and other animals. Over the past 25 years, 38 illnesses have jumped to humans, as disease-causing pathogens have mutated and moved up the food chain [13]. Various countries are attempting to develop a coordinated response to these diseases, as they tend to spread from one part of the world to another. However, these containment strategies are exceedingly difficult to implement in part because they depend critically on international collaboration. Detection, containment, and eradication mechanisms require cooperation from countries that possess neither the administrative structures nor the political will to enforce these measures. Government planning commissions and task forces fail to recognize the value of following basic regulations that include vegetarianism, choosing instead to prop up destructive and impractical systems of animal agriculture.

Animals tend to be housed in extremely crowded sheds, surrounded by their own fecal matter. High concentrations of ammonia in the air destroy the animals’ lungs and weaken their immune systems. The result is that they are highly vulnerable to deadly disease outbreaks such as hoof-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (which is thought by most scientists to cause Crohn’s disease in humans), and bird flu. Moreover, because of the crowded conditions, when one animal contracts an illness it spreads rapidly to others. Farmers attempt to prevent and control disease outbreaks through heavy doses of antibiotics, which are only temporarily effective against bacteria and completely ineffective against viruses such as bird flu. Avian influenza is prevalent on Chinese poultry farms, and the widespread use of the drug amantadine to control viral outbreaks in animals has made the bird flu resistant, rendering the drug useless to protect people [14].

Avian influenza poses a grave threat, with the potential to kill one in eight human beings, including 40 million Americans, and cause a collapse of the world economy [15]. This assessment cannot be dismissed as simply the view of uninformed extremists, particularly since the senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, Dr. David Nabarro, described bird flu as a threat to “the survival of the world as we know it.” [16]. Intensive animal agriculture is the functional equivalent of a time bomb, as these viruses are constantly changing, and weaker forms in birds are known to mutate in just months into highly pathogenic forms for which there exists no effective treatment or vaccine [17].

Millions of farmers and business people have been drawn into the darkness of the meat industry, and they have experienced substantial financial losses due to outbreaks of animal diseases. In many instances, poultry farmers refuse to kill their birds despite government issued directives aimed at the destruction of potentially infected chickens. Poultry owners obviously lose money when their flocks are eradicated, and although the government attempts to provide financial compensation for the farmers, some local officials have been known to take a big cut of the compensation. Culling teams have also protested against pressure from local officials to sign false cull certificates to boost their compensation claims. Consequently, the meat culture breeds corruption as well as animal diseases [19]. Financial losses due to bird flu have obligated small poultry farmers to give up their independence in order to receive a predetermined price for their output; i.e., to minimize price risk, small farmers have entered into contract agreements with large poultry integrators. In this case, small farmers are held captive in contracting relationships, effectively becoming a cog in the wheel of large agribusiness companies.

In conclusion, commercial agriculture and meat-centered diets incur risks that are completely unnecessary while failing to provide a sustainable substitute for cow protection. A key principle of cow protection involves breeding bovine animals to obtain bulls that are engaged in working the land, as opposed to excessively expanding the herd to obtain byproducts such as milk. Organic yields are at least as high as those of the genetically modified crops used in conventional farming. Organic farming is better able to withstand droughts, and is also relatively immune to the upcoming and inevitable shortages of petroleum supplies. In contrast, commercial agriculture depends heavily on petroleum-based chemical inputs, in the absence of which conventional crop yields would fall sharply. It is interesting to consider the remarkable length people will go through just to satisfy their taste for meat, even to the point of risking pandemics and millions of human deaths that originate from livestock diseases.


1. Devinder Sharma, “Is modern science the real pest?” Wednesday, May 14, 2003, Business Line.

2. Clark S., Klonsky, K., Livingston, P. and Temple, S., 1999. “Crop-yield and economic comparisons of organic, low-input, and conventional farming systems in California’s Sacramento Valley.” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture v. 14 (3) p. 109-121).

3. Swezey, Sean, Jim Rider, Matthew Werner, Marc Buchanan, Jan Allison, and Stephen Gliessman, 1994. “Granny Smith conversions to organic show early success,” California Agriculture, Vol. 48, 1994.

4. Reganold, J.P., J.D. Glover, P.K. Anrews, H.R. Hinman, 2001. “Sustainability of three apple production systems, Nature, 410: 926-930. ).

5. Rodale Institute, 1999. “100-Year Drought Is No Match for Organic Soybeans”, (

6. International Energy Agency, 1998. “World energy prospects to 2020”. Paper prepared for the G8 energy ministers’ meeting Moscow, 31 March-April 1.

7. Campbell, Colin J. & Jean H. Laherrere, 1998. “The End of Cheap Oil”, Scientific American, March 1998, pp. 78-83.

8. Pollan, Michael, “Power Steer”, New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002, issue.

9. Pimentel, David, 2001. Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology, September 2001.

10. McLaren D., Bullock S. and Yousuf N., 1998. “Tomorrow’s World, A report from Friends of the Earth”. London, Earthscan Publications Ltd, chapter 6, 1998.

11. Youngquist, Walter, 1999. “The Post-Petroleum Paradigm — and Population”, Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Volume 20, Number 4, March 1999.

12. Vallat, Bernard, 2006. “Addressing Avian Influenza: The Challenges of Partnership”, International Pledging Conference on Avian and Human Pandemic Influenza, January 17-18, 2006.

13. “Scientists warn of growing animal-disease risk,” Associated Press, February 20, 2006.

14. Sipress, Alan, “Bird Flu Drug Rendered Useless,” Washington Post, June 18, 2005: A01.

15. Milbank, Dana, “Capitol Hill Flu Briefing Was No Trick, and No Treat,” Washington Post October 13, 2005: A02.

16. Branswell, Helen, “World As We Know It’ May Be at Stake: UN Pandemic Czar”, Cnews, October 2, 2005.

17. World Health Organization, 2005. “Avian Influenza Frequently Asked Questions: Which Viruses Cause Highly Pathogenic Disease?” World Health Organization, November 3, 2005.

18. United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, 2006. “India

Poultry and Products Annual 2006”, GAIN Report Number: IN6083, September 14, 2006.

19. GRAIN, 2008. “Bird flu in eastern India: another senseless slaughter”, February 13, 2008.

Chand Prasad is a Ph.D. Agricultural economist.  His areas of specialization are international trade, finance, and industrial organization.

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