Intensive, industrial beef production in the US relies on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and high-throughput slaughter and packing plants to produce reliable supplies at low prices.
Its problems are legion and infamous. Where did it come from, and how might it be different?
This talk examines the origins of the modern food system in the trans-Atlantic economic geography of the nineteenth century. Both the modern slaughterhouse and the feedlot were born in the Ohio River valley by 1840, as cattle and pigs consumed super-abundant maize harvests and their manure maintained soil fertility. Expanding westward after the Civil War, the middle-western range-feedlot system sacrificed the Corn Belt to the plough while enabling capital accumulation from extensive livestock production on the unploughed, semiarid rangelands to the west.
Pivotal to this vast novel ecosystem were British livestock breeds, whose biophysical needs and market dominance shaped land tenure systems, management practices and environmental politics throughout the Great West. Dominated by a handful of meatpacking corporations, the resulting cattle-grain-beef complex persists to this day. Today’s CAFOs invert the ecological dynamics of the original feedlot, however, turning a synergistic relationship between ranching and agriculture into a dysfunctional one.