By: Sonja Brankovic
Just over a year ago, a small dairy farm in Kentucky, struggling with expensive farm loans and pressure from more wealthy dairies, had to sell itself to large corporation, Dean Foods. This isn’t a unique story. Curtis Coombs, the owner of the dairy, (along with more than 100 other small dairies) had to sell his family’s 70-year old business to the more consolidated, high-efficiency commercial model that Dean Foods, Danone, Land O’ Lakes, and other large dairies have embraced since the 1970s. Since then, the USDA has reported a 93.8% decrease in dairy farms in the US, mostly because they’re at the mercy of economies of scale and expensive loans. A corporate operation like Dean Foods can employ strategies to stay in the black, such as diversifying their product portfolio (e.g., for a dairy, look into selling ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, rather than just milk), increasing production per cow using breeding strategies and better nutrition, and taking advantage of lower per-unit costs typical of large businesses. These types of tactics have been successfully utilized over the past 50 years and fall under the umbrella of dematerialization, the process of reducing the amount of materials needed to make a product.
Living in a Dematerialized World
Before 1970, there was a widely accepted economic theory that population growth = more resource consumption. Intuitively, this makes sense; if we have more people, we’ll need more land for them to live on, more water and fertilizer to manage that land, more steel and lumber to construct the buildings they’ll inhabit, etc. At the time, this theory was well-justified – material consumption had been steadily increasing (along with population) in the US and UK since the Industrial Age started in the mid-1800s. However, since 1970, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that several staple materials (with the important exception of plastics), including cement, timber, aluminum, steel, and agricultural fertilizer have peaked and are currently “post-peak” for the US and UK.
So what happened in 1970 that galvanized manufacturers to tighten their belts? Some theorize the energy crisis was the main culprit, but there were other incentives – just a year before, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire due to factory wastes from steel mills. Although this wasn’t the first time the river had been ablaze, Time magazine ran with the story and decried the incident as an ecological disaster – just a year later, Congress established the EPA and the country observed the newly minted Earth Day. Environmental concerns such as these sparked an interest in reducing waste – another driver for dematerialization.
From the Agricultural Revolution to Peak Meat: a Timeline
How does all of this translate to using fewer resources in livestock production? Several agricultural innovations were first introduced to the world in the mid-19th century (a sort of Agricultural Revolution taking place in lock-step with the Industrial Revolution). The mechanical reaper was invented in the 1830s, the horse-drawn plow clipped its final clop in the early 1900s in the face of mechanical plows, refrigerated transportation made its debut in the 1940s, and hybrid seeds (especially corn) and new breeding practices were being developed in parallel to all of this. The number of US farms tripled from 1860 to 1910, and during this period farmers succeeded in feeding a quickly growing nation. This incredible output continued into the 20th century, although the number of farms – after the large increase over the previous 50 years – peaked in the mid-1930s as farms grew larger and more consolidated. Factory farming made its debut in the mid-1900s; also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), these corporate-run farms’ objective is to increase the efficiency of their animals using the minimum amount of inputs (labor, fertilizer, seed, water, etc.) Commercial dairies and meat farms are essentially on a continuing quest to dematerialize their operations.
This mentality has produced a “decoupling” of production from pastureland, since large farming operations can pack more animals into a smaller amount of space on top of breeding them to be beefier than their ancestors. Already there are signs that certain parts of the world have reached peak pasture, which would go a long way to mitigate climate change.
Changing Consumer Preferences Throw a Wrench in the Dematerializing Works
By now, most large-scale commercial operations understand that reducing material needs makes their outfits more efficient – which is great both economically and environmentally but doesn’t necessarily translate to consumers wanting more of the product. Despite its economies of scale, Dean Foods, the company that bought up the Coombs dairy in mid-2018, just filed for bankruptcy in late 2019. All while-milk producers are struggling to fight against burgeoning consumer demand in alternative milks (soy, almond, oat, etc.) and drinks with lower sugar content. Growing concern about animal welfare has also impacted the dairy and meat industries, even though they’re as efficient as they’ve ever been – to stay solvent, companies have to find ways to tighten their belts on the production side while also appealing to increasingly eco-conscious consumers.