Last night's episode of Spurlock's TV show was called "Off the Grid." It featured a yuppie-ish, "wired," SUV-owning couple who spent 30 days on a commune, back-to-basics farm in Missouri. The lesson we were to take from the show, I guess, is that our consumer culture is overly wasteful. As Spurlock explains on his blog:
On tonight's show, we take a couple of all American consumers away from their daily lives of consumption and move them "off the grid" to an eco-village in Missouri called Dancing Rabbit.This kind of praise for earthy commune farms is pretty typical. We're told how nothing gets discarded, and everything's fully consumed, recycled, and conserved -- in this case, apparently, even solid human waste.
You guys are gonna love Vito and Johari (the two people who go to the village), be on the lookout for the dolls ... its one of the funniest things in the whole show and one of those things that we could never plan.
ALSO - the word of the day is Humanure ... you'll understand after you watch tonight.
BEST PART OF THE SHOW - The farm that recycles all the manure from cows to create methane gas that he uses not only to power his entire farm, but enough energy to power 70 homes around him! How many feedlots and farms are there in the US? This should be done everywhere (not only is it giving off electricity en masse, it also kills the shit smell that permeates most massive farms.)
Communes and Luddite farms are fine, so long as we approach them with the understanding that they are, at heart, parasitic. They may shun technology, markets, and commerce but technology, markets, and commerce make it possible for them to exist. They aren't applicable in the macro. That is, if we all lived this way, we'd all starve.
But that's a little beside the point of this post. This post is actually about recycling. Spurlock seems to be rather fond of it. At least in some contexts. But his fondness for the communal farm is hard to explain in light of the way he exploits and mischaracterizes the rendering industry in his book. I suppose the intent in his book is take cheap shots at the cattle industry. The intent of the TV show is to take shots at consumer culture. But the two positions aren't consistent. Here's why:
In an amazing display of collective insanity, the meat producers of this country are feeding all sorts of animals to the animals they feed to us. Dead pigs and dead horses are ground up into cattle feed, and so are dead chickens. A lot of chicken manure gets mixed up into the feed in the process, so the cows are not only eating chicken, but chicken shit, which can spread salmonella, tapeworms, and chemicals like arsenic. Not only are cows fed dead chickens, but chickens are fed dead cows (Cue "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King).No, they aren't.
You want to hear something really disgusting? The cattle industry buys millions of dead cats and dogs from animal shelters every year, then feeds them to the cattle who end up in your burger.
Oh, and the do the same with roadkill.
Is your mouth watering now?
This is not only disgusting, it's utter madness. It's the new, insane version of the old "circle of life." It passes new types of diseases around and around the food chain. And at every pass, we make some of those strains of disease stronger and stronger, because we keep bombing them with antibiotics that kill of some of them but only make the survivors and their offspring more resistant. And then they pass through the whole cycle again.
The FDA has regulated some of this and issued recommendations on certain points, but the basic facts are as I just told you. (p. 106)
The process of using animal waste for other purposes is called "rendering." For the uninitiated it is, to be sure, an ugly process. But then, who would have thought spreading animal waste over the ground where vegetables grow would be a good idea? We've come to accept it because we're familiar with it, and because it works. It's the main way organic vegetables are grown, and Spurlock's awfully fond of organic food in his book.
But let's get back to rendering. When Spurlock writes that some animals are "ground up" into cattle feed, he's oversimplifying the rendering process to the point of dishonesty. Here's what actually happens:
The "raw materials" -- by-products from slaughterhouses, mostly -- are pulverized down to a fine grain, which is then cooked at temperatures between 240 and 290 degrees, Fahrenheit. That's plenty hot to kill off all of the bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and parasites. The stuff is cooked at those temperatures until it breaks down into basic nutrient building blocks -- protein, water, and fat. At this point, the protein and fat are separated, and the excess water is evaporated. The protein and fat are stored separately. The protein is dried. The fat is further separated. Some is processed further, some is sold to other industries.
About 80% of the dried protein from rendering plants is eventually used to fortify animal feed. The fat is used for a variety of things. Much of it is used to make soap, or as an additive to lotions, creams, and makeup. Some if it is turned into grease -- for lubricating automobiles and other heavy machinery. Some is used to make artificial rubber. There's some research now that may find ways to use it for natural biofuel. A very small percentage of the highest-grade tallow is used for flavoring in food we eat.
Rendering is recycling. In fact, it's a much more efficient, productive, useful way of recycling than, for example, putting your bottles, cans, and paper in separate bins at the end of the driveway each week. Not only does rendering turn waste into usable consumer products and put fat and protein to new uses, it safely eradicates between 40 and 50 percent of post-slaughter animal waste. It breaks that waste down, kills off pathogens, and puts it to new uses. Were it not for rendering, we'd have twice as many cow, pig, and chicken remains we'd need to find something to do with -- likely disposal in a landfill.
Contrary to Spurlock's claims, only a very few rendering firms still process dog and cat carcasses or roadkill. None of these firms sell that waste domestically, and none sell it for livestock feed. Of course, in terms of safety, there's no reason they shouldn't. But most have stopped precisely because people like Spurlock have fueled public queasiness about the process. Instead, carcasses from vet offices and animal shelters are now generally sent to landfills. So much for recycling.
Spurlock seems to be in awe of commune farms that find a use for everything, even products most of us consider disgusting, like human feces. But when industry does the same thing on a larger scale, Spurlock is not only outraged, he distorts the actual process of rendering to exaggerate the "ick" factor. For Spurlock, when anti-consumerists recycle biomass, it's something to be celebrated. When industry does it, it's something to be vilified.