Thursday, December 16, 2010

Food/Feed Part One: Nitrogen is Nitrogen

The students at Sheep School (aka classes offered in conjunction with the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival) were a mixed lot: a few experienced small commercial stockmen and women, hobby farmers, hand-spinners, pet herders, stockdog handlers, and farmers new to sheep. And me, the stock farmer wannabe; closing on our farm was still a week away.

The instructor for our integrated pest management class was a bit ADHD and very widely knowledgeable, so the course strayed a bit from the closely-defined curriculum. At times, quite a bit. We spent a good deal of time discussing general nutrition. How to balance a ration, how much protein was necessary, working with the feed mill for custom mixes, computing supplements for animals on pasture. And making use of "waste." One student fed bakery discards to his flock. Another was exploring a deal with the produce manager of a supermarket. Good economy if one could ensure that the animals got proper nourishment, if their "ration" was "balanced" overall.

Then the skeptical question, from one of the more experienced students: What about this thing he had read about, feeding poultry litter to sheep?


For those of you whose brains are reflexively vomiting back what you just read (and good for those brains, that is the right reflex), I'm afraid, yes, he was referring to feeding chicken shit, feathers, and soiled sawdust (corncobs, peanut hulls, shredded paper, whatever) to sheep. To animals that evolved to eat God's grass. To animals that are eaten by humans. Whose milk is consumed by humans.

Most of us in the class had to have this clarified and explained too. Not because we were thick.

It's worse than just that, though. What is the source of "poultry litter" to be added to the silage for sheep, goats, cattle? Not the smallholder's wholesome happy henhouse, but, of course, the industrial broiler factories, "vertically integrated" McNugget mechanisms where hundreds of thousands of freakish hybrid birds are crammed together for the short duration of their lives, scarfing down pellets laced with subclinical antibiotics, growing at an astonishing rate, and shitting prodigiously.

The instructor's official response came straight from the playbook of industrial agribusiness: Well, nitrogen is nitrogen.

Translation, long form: As long as an animal receives known chemical nutrients in the right amounts and relative proportions, as determined by science, it doesn't matter what foods it eats.

"Food" is presented as a quaint vehicle for delivering chemical nutrients. No, not "food." "Feed." If livestock eat it, it is not even dignified as "food."

A joke: April Fool's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered in the early 90's. The well-crafted spoof spotlights the growing practice among organic gardeners of skipping the middleman and eating delicious, rich, nutritious finished compost.

Okay, cute. Funny part was listener reaction the next day. There were the clueless who never got it, and earnestly wrote and called in to solemnly warn about the dangers of pathogens in compost. And the pinched and humorless, who upbraided the wicked reporters for their irresponsibility, invoking the legions of listeners led astray, and out to the corner of the garden with a spoon.

Little did they know.

Sitting in that tent in Maryland, I remembered the previous year's pet food recalls. Are nutrients packaged and marketed for dogs and cats "food" or "feed?" On the bag it says "food." The pet-owning consumer likes to think of it as food, no scare quotes. The industry periodically drops into referring to it as feed, same as the pellets and crumbles and grain mixes sold for poultry, cattle, horses.

Dog and cat food, or feed, was systematically killing beloved pets because, somewhere at a factory in China, someone had discovered that a cheap industrial plastic could be added to agricultural commodities to make them appear to be higher in protein. It was cheaper to add waste plastic (impure "melamine scrap") to grain products so that when these products were tested for "crude protein," they would appear to be more valuable than they were.

What does the simple, cheap "crude protein" test detect? Not protein, but nitrogen -- an element that is lacking in lipids and carbohydrates, but abundantly present in the amino acids that form proteins.

Logical enough. If nitrogen is part of a food, it is tied up in the protein. Measure nitrogen, you measure protein. Why would one expect anything else?

But that's not quite true of "feed." Ruminant animals -- cows, sheep, goats, camels, deer, etc. -- can, to some extent, utilize free nitrogen as nourishment. The microbial symbionts in their reticulorumens (first two "stomachs") are able to convert non-amino acid nitrogen to both microbial amino acids and -- if an excess is present --ammonia, used as an energy source. The animal does not digest this free nitrogen (as well as undigestible cellulose) itself -- the animal digests the microbes that have eaten these uneatable feeds. And their poop.

Feedlots have been adding urea to the already unnatural rations of cattle for decades. Since the feedlot steer is not meant to live to adulthood, what does it matter that his kidneys are being destroyed? The captive-bolt will beat fatal organ breakdown by a few months. There isn't even the conceit of optimizing steer nutrition for health and well-being. Cheapest way per pound to cover bone with meat over the course of the next few months.

Monogastric animals -- dogs, cats, chickens, horses, almost everyone, including us -- don't carry around a belly-load of symbionts ready to digest these particular undigestibles for us. Nitrogen that isn't chained into an amino acid is useless to our innards.

So that's the basic biochemistry -- the reason the ag-school expert was willing to pronounce that "nitrogen is nitrogen," even when faced with a practice that, from her paralanguage, evoked the same disgust in her as it did in the rest of us. Official line: Industrial chicken-shit and prime alfalfa -- same diff to a sheep's symbionts. Do the math. Use what's cheap.

A notion that has grown rather more legs than are justified by sciences and disciplines beyond the basic biochemistry involved in a nutrient analysis.

Does it make sense from the standpoint of evolutionary biology?

Well, there are animals that consume the feces of other animals for nourishment. They are called scavengers. If you've kept an aquarium, you've likely employed catfish or snails in this capacity. Sheep are not among them. Sheep have evolved to to eat grass.

The will to ignore the observed facts of biology comes from the conceit that, because we understand more about the chemistry of nutrition today than we did a hundred years ago, we know everything about it.

Does it compute from a public health perspective?

Factory broilers consume sub-clinical doses of antibiotics from the day they hatch to the day before they are slaughtered.

Does your lamb chop need to consume megadoses of not only the antibiotic residue in the chicken shit, but the mutant coliform bacteria themselves?

Does it pass the sniff test of food safety?

The melamine in US infant formula wasn't dumped into the milk powder from a vat. It was concentrated in the kidneys of cows fed contaminated "feed."

The contention that "nitrogen is nitrogen" -- could that be the underlying industriagra conceit that gave us Mad Cow/scrapie/Creuzfeldt-Jacob? That poisoned dogs and cats who were eating a "balanced" and "scientific" ration? That has destroyed the kidneys of uncounted Chinese infants? That has American cows' milk testing positive for the same a fossil-fuel-based contamination that "couldn't happen here?"

Has this conceit clambered up the food chain to become "fat is fat" -- which has given us industrially-altered trans-fats and their attendant heart disease -- or that "sugar is sugar" -- whereby chemically mutated high-fructose corn syrup replaces cane sugar?

Are eaters -- and feeders of eaters -- falling prey to a sad shadow of physics envy -- and regarding as "sciencey" the neatly quantified pronouncements of industrial nutrient peddlers? I see an agribusiness creep -- from livestock "feed" through pet "feed/food" to ConAgra's interpretation of "food" for humans

The goal of the feed seller is to get away with the maximum markup between raw material cost and the feed bag on the shelf at Agway. Some can spin chicken shit into gold.

The goal of the commodity farmer is to get the maximum production for the least cost. A broiler chicken's lifespan is eight weeks; a lamb's, eight months; a steer's, eighteen months. No one is worrying about cancer or blindness or kidney failure striking down Ferdinand in middle age.

Pet owners were surprised in 2007, when we found out that the feed sellers did not ethically distinguish between beloved pets and working dogs and future lamb chops.


  1. Ah, Heather...beautifully said. It's unfortunate that it won't matter one little lick that you and I or the handful of others that agree with this try to continually pass this information on.

    Because, science knows more and better--you said this yourself--that chemistry thinks it "knows" the component parts and can swap them out. Like when we call ascorbic acid Vitamin C and act like it's exactly like what's in oranges.

    We are dumb and getting dumber precisely because there are people who are happy to say "nitrogen is nitrogen" and not distinguish the "ins and outs" so to speak of our ecologies.


    I blog here:

    And I parsed the American Chemical Society's "creed" here:

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Mother Nature WILL bat last. Better to be on her team.

  3. While I understand your viewpoint, I find it deeply troubling that you generalize a few isolated incidences of poor practices to a whole industry. No, it is not acceptable for the malpractices that have occurred in the national (sometimes international) food and feed industries, however I fear you are confusing greed with progress when you renounce the advances made in the science of animal nutrition. Why would you have us go backwards in nutrition knowledge, and in food production? Like it or not, farming is a business, and just like any other production model, waste must be minimized and efficiencies found. Hence the cattle yards pop up in the plains, designed to grow and produce fast, cheap meat. Diets are designed to maximize gain and minimize waste. Why? Because the market demands it. Because your average household cannot afford to pay $20 for a boutique grown chicken that spent it’s life frolicking in a pasture. Because the millions of people scraping to get by, benefit from affordable protein. While your Utopian model of small farmers raising happy critters on pastoral acreage is wonderful, it’s not sustainable. Period. You simply cannot feed the bourgeoning worldwide demand for protein with the backyard organic movement. The food and feed industry has evolved to meet demand, just as any free market business would. Yes, there are areas for improvement. But perhaps it’s not as bad as the media would have you believe.

    I am employed by one of the monstrous agri-giants you so often deplore in your posts. And I am proud of it- I’m proud of the company I work for, I’m proud of the work we do, and the advances we’ve made in the food and feed industries. While I find greed and short cuts unacceptable, I do not equate them with progress, and with finding a better way to nourish the world. You seem too earnest to gloss over all of the positives done daily: people fed safely, and animals humanely processed for consumption, and quick to paint “big” as bad. That is something I have always found that ironic: we live in a free market economy, but when a company succeeds, and grows, it’s immediately vilified.
    Make no mistake – I admire your intellect and passion, but with all due respect, I must call foul on the overarching generalizations you make about the industry. It’s too easy to paint them as the enemy, and to stereotype all companies based off the poor behavior of a few.

    Miare Connolly

  4. There is an entire set of organisms specficially evolved to use the nutrients available in animal manures.

    They are called "plants."



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