Food/Ag Geekout Moment: Factory Farm Pop Culture Showdown!

I'm not wild about cop shows on TV. Most are boring, the format is stale and story lines have become increasingly absurd.  Also, I think it’s completely insane that there are so many different versions of CSI and Law & Order.  Nonetheless, I was excited about two recent cop show episodes – because both featured plots involving industrial agriculture!

The shows (Bones and CSI: Miami) aren’t intended to be in-depth examinations of contemporary food production.  But the stories include some good information about the ills of industrial ag – and we're always glad when these issues percolate into the public consciousness.

Naturally, after viewing both programs, I felt compelled to pin them head-to-head in an epic showdown for the Best Industrial-Ag-Themed Cop Show Episode of 2009 Award.

Here’s the analysis:

Bones – “The Tough Man in the Tender Chicken Suit”

Synopsis : The operator of a chicken factory farm dies.  The police suspect fowl play [insert groan].  View the episode.

Thumbs Up:

  • Factory Farms – Most people have never seen (or even heard of) factory farms.  Big bonus points for giving the issue some exposure on a primetime TV show.
  • Animal Welfare – The episode includes footage of extremely crowded conditions in a chicken factory, and notes that each bird has less than 1/2 square foot of living space.  Viewers also learn about debeaking, a standard factory farm practice that causes birds to suffer lasting pain.
  • Hydrogen Sulfide – The victim’s sinuses are deformed as a result of long-term exposure to this toxic gas.  Indeed, H2S is among the most hazardous pollutants emitted by factory farms; even low concentrations can cause serious health problems.
  • Stench – The factory farm’s nasty odor is mentioned repeatedly.  This is no exaggeration; the odor from factory farms is repulsive and surprisingly pervasive – and it’s not just an annoyance; odor damages human health, degrades surrounding communities, and causes local property values to plummet.
  • Workers – The episode touches on the plight of factory farm workers, who earn meager wages despite toiling in dangerous conditions.
  • Farm vs. Factory – A distinction is made between traditional farms and factory farms (the chicken CAFO is described as a “different beast,” bearing no resemblance to small, free-range farms).

Thumbs Down:

  • The Issues – Regrettably, the episode focuses on the animal welfare impacts of factory farms.  This is a significant concern, but we wish the writers had emphasized the devastating effects of these facilities on human health and the environment.
  • Lunatic Fringe – Leave it to Fox to bust out the classic protester stereotype; the factory farm activists are portrayed as a bunch of deadbeat whack-jobs whose primary objective is to create disruption.  In reality, most factory farm activists are normal people who live in the surrounding communities.  They're not crazy, violent, anti-agriculture extremists – they just want to protect their families' health and prevent their communities from being turned into cesspools.
  • Lame Solution – A lab worker is upset by the treatment of CAFO chickens and decides to take action – by raising $1,500 to save a pig.  Granted, there are certainly worse ways to spend $1,500, but there are plenty of more effective methods of fighting factory farms; easiest approach: don’t buy the foods they produce.  The show makes it seem like factory farmed food is the only option.  Obviously, it’s not.
  • Absurd Murder Weapon – Watch the episode; you'll agree.

CSI: Miami – “Bad Seed”

Synopsis: A woman is killed by E. coli; her boyfriend dies after contracting botulism; CSI traces it all back to a shady corporation involved in factory farming and genetically modified crop production.  Visit the CSI: Miami website.

Thumbs Up:

  • Food: Behind the Scenes – Most people don’t think much about where food comes from or how it’s produced.  The story highlights the complexity of the modern food system, and the importance of carefully monitoring the system to ensure public safety.
  • Independent Contractors – Bixton foods are produced by independent contractors, which reduces the corporation’s liability if anything goes wrong.  This is standard practice for real-life factory farm corporations, which hire CAFO operators to raise animals, but leave these “independent” contractors responsible for all pollution created in the process.
  • Illegal Farm Labor – Though only mentioned in passing, this is an important issue in the U.S.; since many workers lack legitimate legal status, they're easily exploited.
  • Beef Feedlot – The source of E. coli in the story.  We just wish there'd been more than a split-second shot of the feedlot.
  • Corn-Fed Beef – The viewer learns that factory farms feed cows corn to fatten them quickly.  Unfortunately, since cows have evolved to eat grass, the unnatural corn diet increases the level of acidity in their digestive tracts, creating perfect breeding grounds for harmful strains of E. coli.  Kudos for including this under-reported issue.
  • Genetic Engineering – The plot centers around the discovery of a deadly form of genetically modified corn pushed into the market by an unscrupulous agribusiness corporation.  Though the details of this scenario are far-fetched, in reality there are legitimate concerns that genetically engineered crops are approved for use without undergoing sufficient testing.  The episode also touches on the issue of patented seeds (Bixton sues farmers who unintentionally grew crops from genetically modified Bixton seeds that blew into their fields).  This is a not-so-subtle dig at Monsanto.  (Oh SNAP!!)

Thumbs Down:

  • Big Stretches – An E. coli death treated as a homicide?  An agribiz CEO admitting to criminally negligent corporate practices?  The source of foodborne illness discovered and the guilty party punished all in an 8-hour workday?  Not exactly the most realistic story.
  • Not Enough Dirt on Factory Farms – We wish there'd been more detail about the ills of factory farming (air pollution, misuse of antibiotics, irresponsible waste management, etc.).
  • Inevitability of Industrial Ag – Bixton’s CEO delivers the standard “Big Ag or Death” speech (without industrial ag, food prices would skyrocket, everyone starves, etc.).  Would've been great if Horatio had refuted the contentions.

And the winner of the Best Industrial-Ag-Themed Cop Show Episode of 2009 Award is… CSI: Miami, “Bad Seed”!!!!

This is just our verdict…if you watch the shows and care to cast a vote, please do so in the comment section.

Yeah, the plot takes liberties with, you know, science and the real-world characteristics of agribusiness, food safety oversight, government bureaucracy, etc., but we like how the story wove together a wide range of issues to illustrate the complexity and interconnected nature of the problems created by industrial food production.  But don’t let this go to your head, CSI – if anyone even thinks about launching another new iteration of CSI in some other city, the Best Industrial-Ag-Themed Cop Show Episode of 2009 Award will be rescinded.  Immediately.