The Food Animal Problem/The Food Animal Solution

Mrs. Hans Penner, an immigrant from Germany, milking a cow, May 1928. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / C-052310

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Editor’s NoteThis is the fourth post in the Seeds 2: New Research in Environmental History” series co-sponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, publicising the work of early-career environmental historians. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues.

by Nicole Welk-Joerger

In the context of growing population numbers and scientific evidence that humans are a geological force changing the Earth, our food systems are being reevaluated for their efficacy and efficiency. Animal agriculture and the systems that rely on it have been particularly targeted for critique. With new numbers illustrating agriculturally-produced methane as a prominent greenhouse gas emission, cattle have become the faces of climate change. If we couple this methane production with the water and land used to rear animals, eating animal products like beef and dairy can be considered an environmentally unstable practice.

In step with these critiques, scholars claim we are wasting crucial resources just to feed food animals. This year, for example, the animal feed industry was scolded as “wasteful and inefficient” in an article from the Guardian. On a powerful note, it cited the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) saying, “The food industry seems to have been hijacked by the animal feed industry.”

Screenshot from Smithsonian Magazine’s article, “Is the Livestock Industry Destroying the Planet?” Note the use of cow faces to illustrate deforestation, pollution, and climate change.

This isn’t the first time the feed industry has been criticized as wasteful in popular media. Smithsonian Magazine highlighted the immense amount of California’s resources used to grow alfalfa for cattle in 2012. A 1997 article from the Cornell Chronicle claimed, “[the] U.S. could feed 800 million with grain that livestock eat.” These pieces make food a generalizable resource where grain can be fed to either humans or animals – pinning the livestock industry against human food supplies.

Despite this seemingly pervasive narrative, environmental history can complicate these articles and our agricultural moment today. While our current problems may seem new in these commentaries, it is a continuation of a “feed the world” conversation that has been happening since the 18th century. Considering my dissertation research, these more specific anxieties about wasted energy in the wake of a growing population and a changing world mirror those of early 20th century animal nutrition scientists.

One of the chemists I’ve been following in the archive – Henry Prentiss Armsby – wrote about these same challenges in various texts, including his speech that marked the first meeting of the American Society of Animal Nutrition in 1909 (now the American Society of Animal Science). Armsby lamented the fate of agriculture with the closing of the frontier, citing a fellow agricultural director that “there are no more ‘new worlds.’ For us there is little more ‘Out West.’” [1]

Photograph of Henry Prentiss Armsby (1853 – 1921) and his team circa 1910. Armsby is seated second from the left, wearing glasses. Photographic vertical files, Portraits 1855-present. PSUA 1212. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.

He also feared the extent of population growth on our planet, noting:

It would be foolish in the extreme to close our eyes to the fact that the intensity of the demand for food by our future population will exceed anything we have yet known. Whether this state of affairs is to come about more or less rapidly is important chiefly as it gives us more or less time to prepare for it.[2]

However, unlike our contemporaries cited above, Armsby saw animals as the answer to these human problems. Animals were the ultimate converters of raw food materials – including human inedible forages and inedible parts of grains. Armsby used wheat waste to make this case. He calculated that out of the total energy stored up by the growth of an acre of wheat, only about 30 percent went directly toward human nutritional purposes.[3] Since not all parts of food could be used by humans, nor all lands grow food for human consumption, Armsby pressed, “The agency for effecting this saving [of energy] is our domestic animals.”[4]

Efficiency at this time was defined as the complete use of these energies – these crops – produced by humans. To best achieve food production efficiency, Armsby and his colleagues dedicated their time to mapping food and energy values. These were “feed the world” efforts very similar to those executed by human nutritionists of the time, as outlined by historians like Nick Cullather. Energy values – namely the calorie – were used to “[determine] the food supply of the future.” [5] While chemists like Wilbur Atwater were focused on determining caloric measurements of human food, Armsby, among other animal scientists, were calculating how calories eventually reached humans through animal converters. These men and women were so dedicated to this mission it reconfigured scientific inquiry and federal funding. The Division of Animal Husbandry was created out of the Bureau of Animal Industry specifically to focus on animal feed efficiency in food production efforts. [6]

A section of an energy value “map” from Armsby’s “The Modern Science of Food Values” (1920).

Bearing this history in mind, the animal feed industry was built through calculated efforts for increased food efficiency. We can see this same language in defense of the industry today, particularly in promotional graphs that cite feed conversion rates. We’re producing more animal products from fewer animals. This is thanks in part to breeding, but efficient feeding strategies also play a significant role in this story. How this came about through the aid of animal nutrition science looks less like a hijacking of the food system, and more like a partnership with it.

Cattle become scientific sources of new information about food production in the 20th century. This cow’s stomach contents helped prove Vitamin B is produced in the rumen. From Science in Agriculture, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer 1976.

However, it is also crucial to understand that the commentaries I used to frame this discussion are talking past the disciplines and industries that grew out of this history. “Efficiency” has come to mean different things to different people, and the animal’s part in these definitions is varied based on the argument that is trying to be made. This is where the environmental historian’s role in historicizing the body is important. In my own narratives I pay close attention to how farm animal bodies experienced the world and how they were differently understood across human groups at certain historical periods of time. Cows were experimental subjects, teaching tools, and symbols of abundance in times of scarcity across America’s history. Their bodies were sites to play out various practices and ideas of efficiency, sustainability, and wellness.


“This is where the environmental historian’s role in historicizing the body is important. In my own narratives I pay close attention to how farm animal bodies experienced the world and how they were differently understood across human groups at certain historical periods of time.”


Today, the American feed industry uses a definition of efficiency that is very similar to the early 20th century model. The farm animal body continues to be perceived as this conversion machine that promises a more efficient food future. This is different from the efficiency that is being promoted by groups like Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) that are concerned with biodiversity. In their eyes, the farm animal symbolizes the pervasiveness of industrial agriculture over vulnerable ecological systems. It is important to contextualize these views and read into their biases in popular coverage of agricultural efforts today. They each have a history that may or may not play into future reconfigurations of our food production systems.

A graphic used in a dairy farming blog to illustrate how more milk is produced with less feed.

[1] H. P. Armsby, “The President’s Annual Address,” American Society of Animal Nutrition (1909), 2.

[2] Ibid. 6.

[3] Henry Prentiss Armsby, “The Modern Science of Food Values,” The Yale Review, 1920.

[4] “President’s Annual Address,” 8.

[5] Nick Cullather, The Hungry World (Harvard University Press, 2011), 12.

[6] U. G. Houck, “The Bureau of Animal Industry in the United States Department of Agriculture: It’s Establishment, Achievements, and Current Activities,” 1924, box 1, USDA Bureau of Dairy Industry Records. Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.

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Nicole Welk-Joerger

Nicole is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She investigates historical and ethnographic moments when issues of human and animal health meet. She is currently writing a dissertation that uses the history of animal nutrition science to understand current political debates about human, animal, and environmental health. You can connect with Nicole via Twitter @welkjoerger

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