Agricultural Biotechnology

How has food production changed over the last century?
Answered by Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman and Wayne Pacelle
  • Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman

    Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman

  • Wayne Pacelle

    Wayne Pacelle

  1. Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman Co-Owners, BN Ranch


    Nicolette: I think there was actually a big interest in the middle 20th century to try to use grass as the basis for agriculture. It had been recognized in the early history of the United States. We had begun farming, literally just kind of stripping away the top soil and planting crops, and there was a recognition that that was not a sustainable way because the top soil was being blown and washed away. Animals were still out on the landscape and were incorporated in farms, but there were some unsustainable practices that were happening with farming.

    In the mid-20th century, it was just starting to be recognized that you really needed to have grass as the basis for food production, that you needed to rotate animals around a farm, that you needed to have diversified farms that had both crops and animals, and there were actually big discussions that were taking place at USDA about this. But right around that same time, we had the conversion of World War II munitions plants to begin producing all the agricultural chemicals, especially the fertilizers, and eventually also pesticides and herbicides.

    And so, all of a sudden, the idea of chemicals in agriculture became very important mid-20th century. Right around that same time, antibiotics began to be used more in animal agriculture. In 1950, they began being added to the daily feed of poultry. And soon after that, it became common in the poultry industry and then the pig industry. And they also discovered if you put vitamin D in the animals' feed, you could keep them indoors continually.

    But you can never really keep animals healthy when you have them continually indoors, and they don't get to exercise or breathe fresh air. So, both of us have been in a lot of these animal confinement operations and we've observed. You have animals that are really just barely getting by. They're not thriving. They may be gaining weight, but their quality of life is very low and there's a constant issue with large-scale disease spread within these operations because the animals have very suppressed immune systems. They have no ability to tolerate diseases.

    So, there was this huge shift in the middle of the 20th century towards chemicals, towards confinement agriculture, towards basically what we commonly refer to nowadays as the industrialization of agriculture. It became something that was done more as a factory-type production system, rather than this holistic thinking and the recycling of the nutrients and using all of nature's gifts together to produce food. So, what we're seeing now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a strong desire by many people to move back in that direction, more towards the pre-mid-20th century shift. And we think that from a public health perspective, from an environmental perspective, and from an animal welfare perspective that the shift is essential.

    Bill: That system evolved not to keep the animals healthy, moving them indoors and using – it was a management technique that drove costs out and made it much easier to make a 9-to-5 business model out of taking care of animals, husbanding animals, so you could put together a capital-intensive facility where you could just plug in a 9-to-5 employee that didn't have to have any management skills or husbandry skills. The antibiotics and other man-made compounds to keep these animals healthy in that environment was a key component in that paradigm shift in the industry.

    More answers from Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman »

  2. Wayne Pacelle President and Chief Executive Officer, The Humane Society of the United States


    I think that when we had an agrarian economy -- where the farmer was bonded to his animals and the animals were used, whether for the reproductive products like eggs or milk or for meat -- generally speaking, as long the person wasn't maliciously cruel (and that would be a rare circumstance) the animals had a decent life. They were killed at some point, but in the run-up to that, which was the full length of their life, it was OK.

    Now the situation has changed dramatically with a huge loss in farms and the move away from an agrarian-based economy. Now, more than half of us live in suburbs, and then a good share of us live in cities. We now have these factory farms. We have cities of animals, if you will, in rural landscapes. We have concentrated so many animals and denied the animals the opportunity to engage in the most basic animal-like behaviors, like standing up, turning around, having some social interaction with others of their kind. It is a very different view of agriculture that we have now in 2011 than we did in 1960.

    More answers from Wayne Pacelle »

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