Section A: Animals in the Food System
- Projected Outcomes
- Background / Lessons
- Career Pathway content standards
- Students will become aware of the intermediate stages between growing the animal and buying animal products at the grocery store.
- Students will examine the role of animal products in nutrition.
- Students will know about critiques of animal agriculture
Wisconsin is the Dairy State and Iowa is the leading producer of pork in the nation. Most of our crops go to feed livestock: dairy cows, pigs, beef cattle, chickens, sheep, and turkeys, as well as less well-known food animals such as fish, goats, elk, etc. Animal products are the cornerstones of our agricultural economy. This section will get students thinking about how animal products fit into our food system.
The section also introduces students to some criticisms of livestock production. Some people have criticized animal agriculture as environmentally damaging and wasteful. Some animal rights activists have even dismissed all animal agriculture as cruel and unnecessary. On the other side, some defenders of animal agriculture have dismissed any criticisms as ridiculous. Most practitioners of sustainable agriculture in the Midwest find themselves right between the two extremes. They recognize that animal production has sometimes had negative impacts, but they also see that it plays an important role in food systems and agroecosystems around the world. Sustainable animal production systems such as managed grazing can benefit the environment, enhance farm profits, and make the most efficient use of natural resources.
Where’s the beef from?
- Livestock products are part of a global commodity system
- Wisconsin , the dairy state, imports both fluid milk and milk solids
- Iowa is a net exporter and leading processor of beef and pork, but that does not necessarily mean the beef and pork you buy in the store or get in a restaurant was raised and/or processed in-state.
Food safety and processing
- Livestock products pose special food safety and processing challenges
- In the US , with the exception of farm eggs, most of the livestock products the consumer buys have been processed (when is the last time you saw a live, or even an unplucked chicken for sale in the market?). Even eggs are washed, checked, graded, and packed, but that is far less processing than meat and dairy products must go through.
- This processing is subject to strict regulation
- Food safety is still a concern. Preventing bacterial food-borne illness such as salmonella, listeria, and campylobacter is generally recognized as a priority. However, there is debate about the significance of other concerns for food safety, such as mad cow disease and the human health impacts of antibiotics and growth hormones used in meat and dairy production. In addition, there is some disagreement on what practices, regulations, and structures will best promote safety, and who should be responsible.
- This regulation and processing adds a layer of complexity to direct marketing of animal products.
- See Section E “Regulation and Handling of Animal Products” for more information and activities on food safety and processing.
How necessary are animal products?
- The importance of animal products in our diet has been the subject of much debate.
- It is possible for humans over the age of 1 to 2 years to survive without deliberately eating any animal products (and before that age the only animal product babies need is human breast milk or a close substitute)
- Different cultures have different amounts and types of animal products in their diets, and people in those cultures often seem to be physiologically adapted to their traditional diets.
- Although many people in the world eat little or no red meat, animal products (including fish, yogurt, cheese, reptiles or even insects) are part of virtually all traditional diets.
- Humans are omnivores – we can get by on widely differing diets, and we still don’t know quite what is the best diet, or if there even is such a thing. What is more, the best diet will vary depending on a person’s age, gender, activity, personal history, and genetics.
- As recently as 2000, most nutritionists thought that too much consumption of animal products was an important contributor to obesity and heart disease. Some recent health studies have thrown that thinking into question, and in very short order meat and dairy products have become the centerpiece of trendy low-carb diets. The very fast re-embracing of a meat-heavy diet probably is more a reflection of US dietary culture than a result of clear scientific advances in the understanding of human nutrition.
- Animals are intertwined with agro ecosystems and food systems in many ways: they turn plants humans cannot eat into food we can, they can help with pest control, nutrient cycling, and waste management, and they can store agricultural surpluses.
Critiques of Animal Agriculture
Some people hold that eating meat or even eating any animal products is environmentally and socially unsustainable, for the following reasons:
- Grain-fed meat is an inefficient way to produce agricultural nutrients, and the longer lived and larger the meat animal, typically the less efficient it is. According to Farm Bureau statistics it takes 10 lbs of corn to produce 1 lb of beef and 2 lbs of corn to produce 1 lb of chicken. This means that there is less food available for poor people to eat. If everyone ate a vegetarian diet, there would be plenty of food to go around, and we could afford to return some agricultural land to a natural state.
- Animal products require more energy for processing and storage than most grains.
- Livestock production is responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. A 2008 United Nations study estimated that worldwide livestock accounts for 18% of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
- Animal production typically uses a lot of water, which is a particular problem in arid livestock production areas such as the high plains and California . It takes 145 gallons of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread, compared to 1,849 gallons used to produce 3 1/2 ounces of beef.
(This is why ecological footprint calculators ask about how much meat you consume http://www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp )
In addition, processing of meat is highly concentrated, leading to concerns about corporate control of this market. For example in 2006 the four top beef packing firms processed 83% of the beef sold in the US and the top four pork packers (which include three of the same names as the top 4 beef packers) processed 66% of the pork (http://nfu.org/issues/economic-policy/resources/heffernan-report). Moreover, many of these same companies produce feed and other livestock inputs and are increasingly involved in some phase of actually raising the animals, either through contracts with farmers or direct ownership. The growing corporate control of meat production has been associated with falling wages and benefits for workers and increased use of both legal and illegal immigrant labor in livestock production and processing.
Animal products are the cornerstone of Iowa and Wisconsin ‘s agricultural economy. However, many people have raised questions about the environmental impact, nutritional benefits and morality of animal agriculture. On the other hand, some farmers are working hard to ensure that their systems of raising livestock do not cause the problems pointed out by critics of animal agriculture. In fact, integrating animals into the agro-ecosystem can bring major environmental benefits. The case studies presented in this curriculum will introduce your students to a few examples of sustainable livestock systems.
Career Pathway content standards
|Projected Outcome||National Agricultural Education Standards
Performance Element or
(in this section)
|1. Identify the intermediate stages between growing an animal and buying animal products at a grocery store; including processing.||AS.02 Classify, evaluate, select and manage animals based on anatomical and physiological characteristics.
FS.04 Select and process food products for storage, distribution, and consumption.
|2. Describe the function of animal products in nutrition.||AS.01 Examine the components, historical development, global implications and future trends of the animal systems industry.
FPP.03.01 Apply principles of science to food processing to provide a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply.
|3. Identify meat food safety regulations.||AS.06.02 Implement procedures to ensure that animal products are safe.
FS.02.03 Apply safety and sanitation procedures in the handling, processing, and storing of food products.
FS.02.04 Demonstrate worker safety procedures with food product and processing equipment and facilities.
CS.06 Examine the importance of health, safety, and environmental management systems in organizations and their importance to performance and regulatory compliance.
|A-1, A-2, A-3|
|4. Discuss the public issues surrounding the consumption of meat.||CS.03.02 Decision Making – analyze situations and execute an appropriate course of action.
AS.01 Examine the components, historical development, global implications and future trends of the animal systems industry.