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From Farm to Pharma: How Animals Ended Up Living in Confined Feedlots Guzzling Antibiotics

Here's the history behind the transition from farm to feedlot and why Big Pharma rules the barn.

We are now living in a post fast-food-awareness reality, riding on the wake of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser's books (who rode on the wake of Wendell Berry), films like Food, Inc., renegade farmer heros like Joel Salatinand Eliot Coleman, and the ever-increasing popularity of urban gardening and locavores. But awareness, like anything, has its dark side.

Perhaps the hardest thing we post fast-food-aware people face now, is actually doing something -- apart from reading the book and watching the movie, that is. Because things like slavery were abolished, but racism persists. And women got the vote, but men still make more money in the workplace. So maybe "organic" yogurt is now on Wal-Mart's shelves, but that doesn't mean outdated, inhumane practices like factory farming will not persist. They'll just call it something else. It's a common thing, historically -- big business trying to blind the masses with our own beacons.

The following is an excerpt from The War on Bugs by Will Allen. It has been adapted for the Web.

The small American farms that raised livestock as well as row or orchard crops and had suffered through depression and war faced even greater challenges shortly after World War II. Farmers were buffeted by the costs of changing both equipment and practices as farms became more chemically intensive and mechanized. Small farmers struggled in vain to compete with the further consolidation and expansion of the highly integrated farm monopolies, such as Continental Grain, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Richland Rice and Dunavant Enterprises and J.G. Boswell in cotton.

In their struggle to survive, many sought to copy the corporate industrial model of farming and got bigger. Others attempted to sell directly to local outlets as they always had. But following the war, an urban and suburban housing expansion took place near many cities that raised the value and the tax base on millions of acres of farmland. The increased tax base and increased noise and smell ordinances made it more difficult to farm conveniently and profitably close to cities. This cut tens of thousands of growers off from marketing their products directly to consumers.

Then, in the early 1950s, chemical researchers threw another technical dagger at family farmers. The chemical-pharmaceutical firms introduced a dramatically new technology that completely transformed the meat, poultry, and dairy industries -- antibiotic farming. This miracle technology allowed farmers for the first time to confine large numbers of cows, pigs, and chickens in enclosed areas and still keep them healthy. Advertised as a revolution in animal management, this breakthrough resulted in no small part from the discovery that antibiotics, when added in subtherapeutic dosages to animal feeds, could be used to promote weight gain and prevent diseases. These management practices set in motion the next great reduction of small and diversified family farms in the United States by allowing the creation of huge, intensively managed animal-confinement operations.

In 1949 Dr. Thomas Jukes, working for Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid (the first manufacturer of ammonium cyanide in the Americas), was studying several microorganisms to find which ones could produce quantities of B-12, a vitamin largely absent from the soybean- and corndominated livestock diet. One microorganism he studied was the precursor for the antibiotic chlortetracycline, also known as tetracycline. After extensive experimentation, Jukes accidentally found that feeding small amounts of this antibiotic to chicks, piglets, and calves caused them to significantly increase their weight. No one is sure what happened physiologically, but the use of antibiotics somehow suppressed harmful bacteria inside the animal's digestive tract, which enhanced growth.