The Debate About Drug-Free Meats: Are we Asking the Right Questions?

The drug free meats debate misses the point. To feed the world, we need to eat more plants.
The drug free meats debate misses the point. To feed the world, we need to eat more plants.

The drug free meats debate misses the point. To feed the world, we need to eat more plants.

A recent post on Mother Jones caught my eye: Prefer Your Meat Drug-Free? You’re the “Fringe 1 Percent”

Whenever the press takes aim at ‘the fringe’ or the foodie elite, I’m always intrigued– and very skeptical. ‘The foodie elite’ is often industry code for food activists who are working for transparency in our food system and advocating for cleaner food on our plates. As one of these activists, I’m sensitive to this criticism because it undermines the work that I do towards creating a food system that is sustainable and fair.

Tom Philpott, the food and agricultural writer from Mother Jones, of whom I’ve long been a fan, examines one of the keynote presentations at the Atlantic Food Summit that was hosted in early November.

Pork Producers Sue to Kill Country of Origin Labeling
Pigs given the Elanco chemicals have “triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market”

The keynote speaker, Jeff Simmons, is the president of Elanco, a pharmaceutical company. This company served as the primary underwriter of The Atlantic magazine’s 2015 Food Summit, held in Washington, D.C. As a producer of chemicals, it makes sense that Simmons would want to push his products on consumers, as his bottom line is based on higher sales. But because the company makes hormones for animals to be used as food, his product is getting a bit of a bad rap lately.

Rather than reviewing their business model or working on research to improve the products, he instead call out activists that are discouraging the use of hormones in meat as the “fringe 1 percent.” Philpott writes that Simmons’ argument is that this 1 percent is, “agitating for increased regulation on meat producers, is driving the national debate around food.” And in food industry standard practice, Simmons then took the angle that many other corporate food and commodity giants use to encourage us to stop asking questions: their products will solve world hunger.

Related: Can eating vegan feed the world?

Philpott explains Simmons’ main point: “The world needs to produce 60 percent more meat, eggs, and dairy by 2050; doing so will require ‘innovative farming techniques that increase efficiency;’ and organic methods—which forbid growth-boosting chemicals for animals—aren’t going to cut it. Instead, ENOUGH [the non-profit arm of Elanco] insists, ‘we must leverage the innovations and technological advances that will allow us to produce more food without using more resources.'”

According to Philpott, this defensive speech mirrors what other food-chemical companies use to justify their use and abuse of our food system:

“One key part of the strategy [is] to avoid discussion of existing products, and point instead to future innovation. Generally speaking, Monsanto execs prefer to talk about still-in-development crops rather than current offerings, which are riddled by weeds and insects that have evolved to resist them. Likewise, Simmons doesn’t say much on the stump about the company’s best-known product, ractopamine.

A 2014 study from Texas Tech and Kansas State researchers found that it nearly doubled the mortality rate of cows fed on it in the weeks before slaughter. As for pigs, the drug has “triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market,” a 2012 investigation by journalist Helena Bottemiller found. “Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request.”

But these technical innovations are doing terrible things to the animals. The drugs that Elanco produces are clearly linked to health concerns for the animals, and yet this suffering is seen as somehow justifiable in the fight for reducing hunger around the world. Is a more chemically intensive agriculture really the solution? Is more meat– which is directly linked to cancer and other diseases– really the solution to global hunger?


The answer is no, but it’s with good reason that a pharmaceutical executive might be feeling defensive: the industry is changing rapidly. Continued Philpott:

“Industrial-scale meat production has been linked to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human medicine (which claims at least 700,000 lives per year globally); ecological ruin; increased risk of cancer; and the hollowing out of communities where it alights. Insult to injury, US consumers have been cutting back on meat consumption overall, and turning increasingly to drug-free, pasture-raised product. And more importantly, as people realize the health and planetary benefits of reducing their meat consumption, meat consumption was down in 2014, continuing the trend of a 10% decrease each year since 2007.”c

Clearly, this pharmaceutical exec is feeling the heat of a rising consumer movement to avoid chemicals in our food, and reduce our meat consumption overall (and sorry, Whole Foods, grass-fed beef is not the solution). Studies from around the world note that reducing or eliminating meat from our global diet can reduce emissions by half, along with dozens of other benefits.

According to this resource list from One Green Planet, it’s clear that increasing meat production is not the solution to world hunger:

+ We use 56 million acres of land for animal agriculture while dedicating only four million acres of land to growing produce;

+ A staggering 70 percent of grain in the U.S. is fed to farmed animals rather than to people (The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people – more than the entire human population on Earth);

+ It takes 4,200 gallons of water PER DAY to produce a meat-eater’s diet. A plant-based diet uses only 300 gallons of water per day. Additionally, a whopping 70 percent of our domestic freshwater goes directly to animal agriculture;

+ All resources taken into account, one acre of land can produce 250 pounds of beef. Sounds pretty good, right? Not when you consider the fact that the same acre of land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes or 53,000 pounds of potatoes.

woman organic farm malawiWhile these markers are quite clear that meat-centric diet is unsustainable for the planet, it’s not just eating meat that needs to change. As summed up beautifully in this Guardian article by Priamvada Gopal, it’s our entire food system that needs to shift:

“A serious discussion about food security and natural resource usage must [emphasize] redistributive social justice and not just lifestyle choices in the abstract. The excessive consumption of animal products clearly poses an imminent danger to both planet and human existence. But addressing this cannot take the form of a coercive herbivorous moralism. We need a comprehensive reordering of the global economy and our priorities as human beings to end the limitless scandal that is widespread hunger.”

The questions this executive should be asking about world hunger are how much more food is used to feed animals instead of feeding humans? How can a calorie- and fossil fuel-intensive agriculture ever make up for the benefits of an organic system that relies primarily (or entirely) on plant-foods for sustenance?

Blaming the ‘elites’ for a broken food system is not even a start of the solution: we all have a role to play in creating a more just, sustainable and healthful food system. And it starts with a vegan diet and organic lifestyle for everyone. Perhaps this starts with the ‘elites,’ but couldn’t we build a more sustainable food system for all?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top