A week or so ago, while reading a Facebook thread in a large, agricultural-focused group, Chris stumbled across a story about a rain and candy soaked highway in Wisconsin. Wet weather had soaked a cardboard box and unleashed an avalanche of soggy red skittles across the road. The county sheriff had been called in to help clean it up, remarking that the “distinct smell” of the candy helped them identify what the (one would assume) sticky mess was.
He read bits of the article aloud, and we groaned and chuckled, imagining what a disastrously sticky, yet sweet-smelling mess that must have been to scrape of the highway. As he read further through the article, though, our chuckles turned to silent disbelief, and dread settled in like an overnight, April snowfall.
The smeared skittles weren’t destined for a packaging plant, a baseball stadium, or any other logical destination for all those empty calories.
“The sheriff’s office said the candy was going to be added to feed for cattle, a practice that Eater says has been going on for decades.” (emphasis mine)
You read that correctly, dear reader. Candy, deemed unfit for our own consumption (by the Mars company’s own criterion), was headed to the nearest CAFO to fatten up cattle. Cattle, whose meat would most assuredly end up in supermarkets and on dinner plates around the country. We were at the same moment horrified, and now liberated from the former belief (held not moments before) that corn was, in fact, the worst thing for cows in order to make meat. Empty, nutritionally void, chemical laden sugars are being foisted on cattle and their rumens, all in the name of the conventional food system’s four horsemen: bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper.
What is even more shocking than the thought of cattle being fed a steady diet of empty, nutrient void candy castoffs (wrappers sometimes included!) is the number of people who actively, vociferously espouse feeding candy to cows. The arguments for feeding these factory seconds to cows are simple and short sighted. When faced with challenges (a drought) or opportunities (cheap candy) these conventional, CAFO conglomerates argue that calories and sugar from any source is good enough for your future meat. When overly-subsidzed and misleadingly cheap row corn is even too pricey for the CAFOs to meet their bottom line, why be picky about where sugar comes from? Leftover, unsellable candy sugar is all that cows apparently need to put on weight. According to this Marketplace article, “Ki Fanning at Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Nebraska says others are substituting cereal, french fries, ice cream sprinkles, marshmallows, cookies and even gummy worms” into cattle feed, rather than relying simply on feed corn. He, somewhat alarmingly, reassures us that “Cattle can utilize gummy worms just the same way we can. They put on a lot of weight with those products because they’re high in sugar.” Well, if THAT is not the recipe for healthy food… wait, its not. Who among us would like a diet based mainly on these empty calories? Turns out that many cattle farmers think its just fine.
Another argument, made by many of the candy-dispensing farmers, is that they are in fact doing us all a favor. Yes! Gather your disbelief and come with me, friends. Many, many farmers argue that diverting these truckloads of candy toward our future t-bones then keeps said truckloads out of our landfills. Who among us can argue against the sacrosanct invocation of repurposing and recycling, especially when Mother Nature is concerned? I can. Especially when we peel back the veil of this very shallow, very misleading article. Let’s go on a fieldtrip, shall we, readers? Or several. Let’s think about the journey that each calorie – nutritious or not (that discussion is best saved for another post) – must take to get from the ground to the cow.
In a traditional, corn-fed CAFO: the corn must first be row-cropped (a spacial arrangement that benefits only human farming machines, not the plants) using gas and diesel powered tractors, harvesters, and combines. Then, the corn must be transported to and loaded into silos, where it awaits another journey, upon another gas guzzler, to and then around the feedlot and into the cows. This is to say nothing of the chemical and petroleum-laden fertilizers that are trucked around and sprayed over the corn crop as it matures.
In the candy-powered CAFOs mentioned above: the same journey as the corn-fed systems takes place, as the conventional food system has yet to find a way for cows to subsist completely on factory castoffs. Alongside that corn-based journey, there is another, even more damaging caloric migration from farm to ultimate fork. When surplus sugary candy is added to the cows’ feed, we begin with the row-cropped corn, grown and harvested with all the aforementioned technological inputs. After said corn is trucked to a factory and then transformed into high-fructose corn syrup – or any of the other mysteriously named sugar compounds – it then must make its way to the candy-making facilities, where giant, power-plant-dependent machines turn the corn-based sticky goop into candy, adding extra sugars, fats, and chemicals along the way. After it is determined that this candy is unfit for human consumption, (the skittles in the original story had one fatal flaw; they managed to make it to the end of their production line without being stamped with an “s”) the cast-offs must then be re-loaded onto yet another engine powered behemoth, trucked goodness knows how many miles to the nearest CAFO, and then augured into the corn-based feed ration.
To make the argument that feeding castoff candy to cows is a net positive to the environment, on closer inspection, is completely misleading. When all the steps, middle-men, inputs, and expended resources are taken into account, there is no way anyone can make the argument that our environmental system is better off than it would’ve been otherwise.
On our farm, and other farms like ours, cows are out on pasture, rotationally grazed, and expected to eat the only thing they are actually designed to eat. The grass grows from the ground and then is eaten by the very cow that is standing atop it. No trucks, no tractors. No harvesters, no hoppers. The cows eat the only food they are indeed designed to consume – pasture grasses; they then can then spend all their energy turning those calories into nutrient-packed protein for us to eat.
After some light internet digging, it is clear that this practice has, in fact, been going on for quite some time. The article that we read originally was published over a year ago, and the others date as far back as 2012. Most of the articles devoted to this sticky news story reach for the same predictable joke, associating the skittles-satiated cattle with children around the American proverbial dinner table. “If only we could convince our moms that calories from candy were healthy for us too!” Let’s all stop snickering for a moment and really think about the parallels in that allegory. Large cattle corporations and their spokespeople are telling us that as far as they are concerned, calories from skittles are equal to those from corn. For their purposes, it does not matter if meat is made with corn, cookies, gummy worms, or marshmallows. Can you imagine if we said the same thing about the food we feed our children? “As far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re getting their 2,000 calories, it doesn’t matter if its from skittles or spaghetti, ho-hos or hamburgers.” One snickers bar or two apples – what could be the difference? You and I both know, as does anyone with a brain, that the source and supplier of calories does, in fact, matter very much. When it comes to our health, it matters tremendously.
As every parent knows, we would never allow our kids to eat a diet consisting solely of wrapper-covered sugar sticks. But unless you know your farmer, and you know the source of your meat, there is no way of knowing what in the world went into it. The USDA has myriad guidelines for food labeling and claims – none of which, incidentally, will honestly help you make informed choices about your food – but none of them deal with whether or not your meat came from a cow that horked down castoff candy rather than the usual corn-only ration. Even further, if you have purchased ground beef from any place other than a small, family farm, that pound of meat was sourced from hundreds, possibly thousands of different cows. There is just no way to be sure of what is in your food unless you get to know the farm from whence it came. As every parent knows, a handful of skittles and a handful of grapes hold extremely different nutrient contents for your kids. You should get your meat from a farmer who knows that, as far as cows are concerned, a mouthful of grass and a mouthful of Mounds are extraordinarily different as well. If we want the best, most nutrient-rich foods for our families, we should demand the same for our animals as well.
As always, thanks for being with us on this journey! Are you interested in more posts about the nutrition benefits of grass-fed protein? Cheers to healthy eating! 🙂 Lauren