Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st Century Agriculture (nytimes.com)
161 points by adriand 230 days ago | hide | past | web | 65 comments | favorite



A more interesting and enlightening article on the state of 21st Century Agriculture is plugged after this article.

Michael Pollan is a wonderful writer. This article shouldn't surprise anyone who spends time thinking about the food they put into their body and where it that food is sourced.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/obama...


.. and also much more enlightening than this puff piece for capital agriculture, is this one, also promoted on the article: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/meat-...


Oh yes. It's possible to make highly productive, completely organic, local agriculture. Added bonus, in times of high unemployment, it's relatively job-intensive.

The mega-corporation-owned, gigantic scale, chemical-laden industrial agriculture presented here is a nightmare...


Hopefully technology (robotics + machine learning) will improve this a lot in the future. Rather than needing to keep dairy cows in a shed they could graze, and some robotic contraption could roam the field milking them, etc.

It's also worth mentioning that these are probably the better food operations out there (most wouldn't allow cameras).

Agriculture is ugly, and always will be.


>Agriculture is ugly, and always will be.

Wrong! Agriculture is a low profit business. If you're cruel to animals or take shortcuts you will go broke. I used to work with farmers as a fertilizer guy and I've seen it all the time.

First off most of these truly are family farms. It may not look that way but because of the high degree of automation available a single family with a couple of employees can farm thousands of acres or milk thousands of cows.

The outstanding farms care about their employees and their livestock. I knew one farm where every one of 1500 cows had a name. Not USX1102 but NancyJo or William. Every profession has outliers. Usually when you see a documentary it's that exceptionally bad farm.

I've been on hundreds of pig, cattle and dairy farms and you're seeing the exceptions in those documentaries. It's sad but it drives city dwellers to get entirely the wrong impression of today's farmers.


Brings a new meaning to "treat your servers like cattle, not pets"


> most wouldn't allow cameras

Because farmers are concerned that reporters are out to portray their operations as more inhumane or less safe than they really are. For example, nursing sows are kept in very small cages so they can't roll over and kill their piglets, but farmers know that most journalists would only see (and thus talk about) the claustrophobic quarters.

> Agriculture is ugly, and always will be.

I grew up on a farm; while there's certainly room for improvement, most farming operations are very humane. I can't speak to the extreme "big ag" end of the spectrum, but family farms--even large ones--tend to treat their animals well.


> I can't speak to the extreme "big ag" end of the spectrum, but family farms--even large ones--tend to treat their animals well.

This totally misses the point. Big Ag is where most of the supply comes from (and with demand, will continue to come from), therefor the practices in those environments should be the focus, not family farms. Focusing on the potential good does not in any way make the bad disappear. I just can't understand being ok with the proven, horrible conditions of large operations just because there are better examples out there.

We should be judging the state of things based on the worst examples, not based on the best...


Your whole post is a straw man. No one is saying you have to ignore the sins of big ag because there are good farms out there.


> so they can't roll over and kill their piglets

If you'll excuse an ignorant question, how did pigs ever survive before this practice? And is it necessarily "humane" just because it reduces one kind of risk?


Same as with any other animal - they have multiple offspring, so even if some of them die it's no big deal in nature. On a farm, you don't want even a single piglet to die that way, so you keep the sow in such position that it can't kill the piglets accidentally.


If it's not a big deal in nature, then it happens infrequently, yes? So the sows are kept in tiny pens (or pinned on their sides as in the photos in the article) to make reproduction a bit more efficient on the farm than in nature?

This was given as an example of something that looks more inhumane in pictures than it really is. The reason it looks inhumane is because one imagines the sow would prefer freedom of movement, as other living things do. The reason why it is done is certainly relevant, as is how long they are kept in that position, whether they ever appear to be in distress trying to move about, etc.

None of this is visible in a photo, and needs to be explained. However, I don't buy the argument that people have no right to see where their food comes from because they just wouldn't understand what they're seeing. A system where living things are raised for our benefit seems like a place where more transparency is called for, not less.


^ ding, ding, ding. Winner!


Assuming that the reason for the practice is correct, one explanation could be that the pigs that we raise for food are very different from the pigs that survived before that practice.


Domestic animals are stupid; they've been bred to be that way -- that's kind of what "domestication" is. Wild boar are dangerous animals. But in breeding out the aggressiveness, you lose a lot of useful traits as well.


The idea that you can't allow cameras because actual realistic video footage would be deceiving speaks of the delusion that exists in the food industry - "family farms" included. A reality where animals can regularly accidentaly kill their own offspring as a circumstance of how they are being kept is crazy and the idea that their movement should be restricted even more is truly insane.

Whenever I feel like having a Kebab I check Youtube for some food industry reality check and watch how these fairly intelligent animals are treated. Usually cures me of that need.


> The idea that you can't allow cameras because actual realistic video footage would be deceiving speaks of the delusion that exists in the food industry - "family farms" included.

How so?

> A reality where animals can regularly accidentaly kill their own offspring as a circumstance of how they are being kept is crazy and the idea that their movement should be restricted even more is truly insane.

There's nothing insane about this claim. This is a well-documented problem.


You can't be deceived by seeing the reality on video (unless edited to manipulate). People have the vague idea of a happy cow that's eventually being eaten after a happy fun life on the Meadows, seeing the reality is of course revolting.

Idea being that restricting movement for the animal is terrible - can you relate to how that pig feels?


Robotic contraption milking them? How about these milking robots on the farms all around me?

https://youtu.be/Aju_wqHhCBk


Pardon the language, but holy shit that is cool. If anybody is reading this and didn't click on that youtube link, click on it. This is seriously amazing.


They're becoming pretty commonplace. A friend runs a farm that uses them. The cows come in to be milked when they want to be, which averages about 2.2 times per day, they enjoy getting milked. A back scratching machine gives them a rub (which they love) and they stroll leisurely back to their paddock to eat more of their favourite thing; grass.

Staffing costs are much lower along with the subsequent disasters and animal problems caused by thoughtless staff. The cows are happier than ever and milk production is record-breaking.


Here's the back scratcher, made by the same people who do the self-service milking machine:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9paVtU4NmQ

I remember seeing DeLaval say that the back scratcher is their most popular product --- among both humans and cows!

Their corporate website looks a bit threadbare (last update 2015), but their Youtube channel has recent videos; I hope they're doing all right, but their products look amazingly cool.


Because their products look cool. Stupid fingers.


That is really awesome to hear.


My parents installed their first milking robot about 12 years ago. They are now onto 2 more modern robots.

The first milking robot was manufactured in _1994_!


>Agriculture is ugly, and always will be.

Dairy farming has come a long way. Automated farms already exists where cows just wander into a shed at their leisure and are automatically milked.

http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2013/s3863064.htm


the images already show us great amounts of automation (carrot cleaning and sorting, as well as the 12-person crew doing what took 40 people to harvest greens) and it's only going to get more automated. It's clear the days of manual laborers harvesting are coming to a close. Fewer and fewer people will be involved in growing and harvesting food.

One thing I wish is that they had Mitch Epstein do the commission ala American Power[1]. Not to knock Steinmetz, I just like how Epstein takes in a scene and presents it ambivalently great and obscene.

[1]http://mitchepstein.net/american-power


Hopefully technology (robotics + machine learning) will improve this a lot in the future. Rather than needing to keep dairy cows in a shed they could graze, and some robotic contraption could roam the field milking them, etc.

Already in production.[1] The cow's view of a competing robotic system.[2]

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hojnPpvI6-I [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_Q1LoxK5mE


Semi-related: I wonder why the Times is publishing the magazine during the week now. I suspect it has to do with when and how people read these days - many fewer people getting the hard copy, and probably fewer people reading online over the weekend.

I feel like we're at peak long-form journalism, podcasts, and binge-worthy tv. I could (I do not) devote 2+hrs a day to the good stuff and still be way behind.


Funny you should say that, I just subscribed to the Times a little over a month ago, the digital version that is. Its the first newspaper I've subscribed to in over 4 years. I like their articles and generally find myself actually reading through them the whole way. Its the only paper I've found worth my time/money.


Be very glad you can't smell that cattle feed lot through the screen.


>Our industrialized food system nourishes more people, at lower cost, than any comparable system in history...

It does puzzle me though why in Spain, among most other food, bread is 1/5 and Tomatoes 1/10 the price. Particularly odd is that US boxed cereal and California wine are also cheaper.

But that is off topic I'm sure.


The first picture is just depressing. All those calves living their lives in a cramped space without exposure to nature or to one another, constantly fed to achieve maturity in a fraction of the time it would normally take. This is so fucked-up. And of course their meat tastes nothing like beef.


"Newborn females arrive from local dairies and spend their first 180 days at Calf Source — first in one of 4,896 hutches, like the ones seen here, and then in larger group pens. Trucks pass down each of 72 rows, dispensing water and milk. After a transfer to Heifer Source, another facility owned by the Milk Source company, the cows are inseminated and then returned — seven months pregnant, and just under 2 years old — to the dairies they came from."

They only spend a small part of their life there. And they're cows, so they're not used for meat.


They are, eventually. Once they stop producing enough milk, they're sold for meat. A dairy farm I once visited likened milk cows to star football players - once they stop producing, they're off the team to make room for new talent.


> They only spend a small part of their life there. And they're cows, so they're not used for meat.

Yeah right, being separated from your mom at birth, enslaved from your first day, raped and made pregnant once a year is not such a bad deal. At least you're not dead...


Given that cows cannot give consent, you can hardly call it rape any more than natural insemination from a bull is rape.


Additionally depressing is that all of these calves were separated from their mothers at birth, as will all of their offspring. When a calf get it's mothers milk, humans do not.


They're not actually separated at birth, because if you do that their immune system doesn't get seeded by their mother's milk, and they end up dying of horrible diseases.


Actually they are (within a matter of hours) and the bulk of colostrum a calf gets in its first days comes in frozen form, from other cows.

If a calf is allowed to suckle as nature intended it will learn to like the process (and the milk) and take longer to get onto a dry feed diet. In a commercial operation there's no time for that.

Source: 3 years on a dairy farm.


Oh that's nothing. You should see how we process horshoe crabs or chickens.

Mankind has basically hit eldritch horror in terms of how we use livings beings in our machines.


> without exposure ... to one another

They do have at least some exposure to one another - if you look closely at the photos you can see a bunch of them out of the pen and near each other.

And the text says they are in group pens when they get older.

They must have some reason for separating them though, it looks like a ton of work to implement and they wouldn't do that for nothing. Don't know what though. Maybe some of them get bullied otherwise?


the next logical step is a cow without a head (or without a brain, or a rudimentary brainstem only) that ingests nutrients from pipe coming from a nutrient-vat of soylent-like material.


Why not directly go to vat grown or 3d printed meat?


because an animal is a self-contained unit which manages disease and feed conversion that scales fairly predictably, while cultured meat has a pretty high entry barrier in terms of feedstock, sanitation etc


An animal is also terribly inefficient at converting water and feed into human-consumable nutrients, because it's optimized for survival and reproduction.

The vat based solution is more scalable in the long run, and not impossible (we do it with beer).


> An animal is also terribly inefficient at converting water and feed into human-consumable nutrients,

I have an old book somewhere that says the milk cow is the most efficient means of converting a rocky hillside covered with grass into human-usable protein.


>a rocky hillside covered with grass

Yeah, that's scalable.


the cynic in me says that the "manages diseases" part will become increasingly untenable in the future, as antibiotic-resistant everything proliferate in feedlot environments, and american regulatory agencies fail to put a check on antibiotics mixed into animal feed.

reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/magazine/power-steer.html


Or, you know, actual plants, that are healthy and probably always going to be environmentally better because you cut out a middle man in calories to mouth, one that is now sentient...

It's weird how much people try and peddle different solutions and proteins like "low methane cows" or crickets!" Instead of something much simpler and already tried and true, beans nuts, grains, etc...


> It's weird how much people try and peddle different solutions and proteins like "low methane cows" or crickets!" Instead of something much simpler and already tried and true, beans nuts, grains, etc...

Because very, very many people enjoy eating meat and meat-based products. Therefore, we're looking for alternative, better solutions.

Nothing weird about that.


I think discussions about alt-meat need to discussed in a way that acknowledges they are solutions to a solved problem.

Perhaps my original reply was a bit too down on them, because I do agree that research is good!


> I think discussions about alt-meat need to discussed in a way that acknowledges they are solutions to a solved problem.

No, alt-meat is a solution to a problem of how to influence behavior to create particular results that is rather emphatically not solved.


economics, i would assume


No, that's not logical at all; the next step will be meat grown directly in a petri dish. There have been successes the last two years, but it's going to take many more years to work well and scale up. The Gates foundation funded the first petri dish burger, btw.


Sociopathic country needs its "beef" at all costs. Most of the world doesn't use these techniques.


Why is it that in the Taylor Farms photo of vegetable processing, all the workers are wearing dusk masks or respirators? What is dangerous in that environment?


I'd imagine it's their sneezes and coughs.

The problem isn't what's going into the workers, it's what's coming out of them.


In addition to keeping the food clean, massive amounts of dust derived from any substance can be irritating, even vegetables. Have you ever cut an onion or a really hot pepper?


Perhaps the workers are dangerous - to the food. Can't have them breathing contagious germs into the food they're processing...


Amazing.

People can complain about conditions and what not of mass produced food but it's a big demand. I think it's ingenious the designs of these various mass-production facilities.

Sure, treat the animals with respect. Does suck to think you're born for food.

That line of cows being inseminated and sent back to where they came from. Shit. Sounds dirty haha. Poke. I don't know how they do it though so just speculating.

Great post


Weird: I have JavaScript enabled, but the article is an unreadable grey-on-white.


I had the same problem but it cleared on a page refresh.


Not sure if you have an ad blocker running, but that was the source of that issue for me.


The <article> tag has an opacity: 0.3 rule that you can remove.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: