Myth exposed: The lunacy of industrial food supply (& energy, &…)

As has been a running thread in these coronavirus days here on AIRE’s blog, the novel virus for all its misery, grief, and social upheaval is exposing some myths. All one has to do is pay attention and use their critical lenses. Whether it’s food supply, medical treatment, or energy supply, there’s growing evidence that when a system is looking brittle, system change is needed. Way back in mid-April (yes the news moves fast these days!), the coronavirus endangered food supplied to the nation by big corporations was a story waiting to break. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones and one of the most strident and inquiring critics of the industrial food system (and our High Country friend of Maverick Farmer fame) could see it coming. Now of course, coronavirus in the industrial meat supply chain is beginning to spread across the map and across the news media. Sioux Falls, SD, Greely, CO, Lebanon County, PA, and Wilkes County, NC , anywhere there’s a meat processing plant there are coronavirus stories.

The story could emphasize different critical aspects, but the main one in this post is the value of people and community. The industrial food system doesn’t have those interests at heart, despite what some of the industry’s big honchos want us to believe with their full-page ads in the nation’s newspapers. Workers are being exploited under the “essential worker” heading and in a growing number of cases, dying of COVID19 they contracted in the slaughterhouse. As Philpott writes,

Even in normal times, it’s a tough trade.

But in pandemic times like these it’s more than a tough trade. It’s a deadly trade for workers and their families, and it’s clearly endangering wider communities. The number of coronavirus cases has spiked in the adjoining county next to me. We’ve had 8 confirmed cases in Watauga County so 100+ next door in Wilkes County is a massive jump relatively speaking. Our local news outlet said this:

A large COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wilkes County has been attributed to the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant as positive test numbers surpassed 100 Wilkes County residents over the weekend. According to the Wilkes County Health Department, a total of 127 confirmed cases were reported as of 2:05 p.m. Sunday afternoon.


According to WSOC TV, the large increase in positive tests started at the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro. [Note: link in original]

Screenshot from friend and colleague, Jeff Deal’s open source outbreak data project. The new cases described in the article quoted above stand out clearly. (Data sources: NYT & Johns Hopkins U.)
Our county has done a great job with public health policy and as a result COVID-19 cases are low. But industrial food is cultivating a hot spot just “down the mountain” and that’ll surely impact us up here. That dynamic is being played out in so many places and it’s lunacy. So we’re prolonging the threat we’re all subject to, and endangering the human beings working in those plants. Not to single out Tyson Foods (but if the shoe fits) because there are other guilty corporations too, but our friend and colleague up in Indiana notes an identical occurrence there. Adam Thada, director of Ecological Relationships at Poor Handmaids for Jesus Christ, lamented in his recent post on the topic in his community:

I want to think the best of people (and I want others to think the best of me), but Tuesday night I had a rather dark thought: “You know, there are people who would force immigrants to chop up chickens even if it kills them. We won’t even stomach a minor change in our diet in order to help them in the midst of a pandemic.”

Immediately, and perhaps naively, I replied to myself: “Adam, you’re being too hard. Stop being so judgmental of others. Get off your high horse.”

And then the next morning I read [about the meat industry executive order…]


I know that certain sectors of the economy can provide opportunities for families that they would not have elsewhere. The American in me is deeply proud of being a historic place of refuge and opportunity, as checkered and blood-stained as that history is.

But it boils my blood to watch our immigrant friends, neighbors, and spouses be so consistently and methodically vilified, demeaned, and harassed while we dine on the fruits of their labor.

Thada’s post ends with some wisdom from Pope Francis’ Laudato si‘, the climate encyclical written some five years ago, chapters 28 and 29 dealing with dignified work, land tenure, and the appropriate scale of things. [1]

An executive order invoking the Defense Production Act– and mind you, not for critical medical supplies– but to bar local governments from closing industrial meat plants in a public health disaster, is more proof that we need system change across the board- food, energy, health care, education, politics, and mind-sets. When the Trump worldview calls industrial meat factories critical infrastructure but utters not a word about renewable energy or health care as a human right, that’s completely off the rails. Then the senate has the gall to demand corporate immunity for corporate food, adding insult to the executive order injury!!! Forget testing or N95 masks for endangered medical workers but give me my chicken nuggets and let the industrial meat fat cats climb over the backs of others to gorge themselves at the public trough!

If Eliza Blue, an “Accidental Rancher” in Perkins County, South Dakota is right, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up her claim:

Even before the pandemic laid bare the instability of the industrialized food supply chain, ranchers knew that chain wasn’t working. At its core, our work will always be based around the rhythms of nature rather than technically derived calculations. Instead, sun and rain, dormancy and renewal determine our obligations. At the height of a pandemic that is exposing nearly every systemic flaw in society, our work on the ranch remains virtually unchanged.


I know some ranchers who are working to change this system, but many more lack the financial or political clout to innovate beyond the scope of their own operations. We are part of an industrialized system that treats animals and their caretakers as columns on spreadsheets geared toward achieving maximum profit. These columns ignore the physical realities of labor in animal husbandry, as well the dignity of the animals we husband, while saddling us with debt and draining resources from our rural communities.

When the chairman of Tyson Foods, John Tyson, threatens that animals will have to be “depopulated,” what he means in his sterile industry-speak is no different than their industry-planned outcome (from the animal’s perspective anyway). After all, it’s just columns on spreadsheets and profit maximization to men like Tyson. It seems also to be a tactic aimed at deepening the wedge between poor workers, farmers, and “consumers” and driving the “open the economy” discourse at all human cost. I don’t know any ranchers but, again, if Eliza Blue sees it correctly, ranchers know the present system isn’t working for them either. The industrial food system we have right now makes Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture an even more brilliant piece of writing, especially since it was written 43 years ago. I think lots of us know “the system’s” not working, it’s brittle, unjust, and now’s the time to do something about it.

It’s time for a change.

[1] See an AIRE post on applying the encyclical.

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