Early twentieth-century farmers struggled to keep pace with demand
In 1950, American farmers rejoiced at news from a New York laboratory: A team of scientists had discovered that adding antibiotics to livestock feed accelerated animals’ growth and cost less than conventional feed supplements. The news blew “the lid clear off the realm of animal nutrition,” crowed the editors of one farm magazine. Farmers and scientists alike “gasp[ed] with amazement, almost afraid to believe what they had found.” “Never again,” vowed another writer, would farmers suffer the “severe protein shortages” of the past.
Those glad tidings overshadowed contemporaneous warnings about bacterial resistance, most ...view middle of the document...
American farmers, already a minority, could not keep pace with the needs of the urban, non-food-producing majority. Demand routinely outstripped supplies and chronically exorbitant food prices confounded policy makers and enraged consumers. After 1914, World War I intensified both global demand for U. S. foodstuffs and shoppers’ outrage. Complaining about food shortfalls on one hand and high prices on the other became a national pastime, one summed in a phrase Americans of the era coined to capture their grievance: the high cost of living.
Of all the foods whose high price aggravated consumers, none were more infuriating than those at the meat counter. In 1910, millions of Americans joined a national meat boycott to protest prices, and in 1917, just weeks before the U. S. entered World War I, urban protests against the cost of meat resulted in picket lines and shattered butcher shop windows. In the aftermath, Americans encouraged the USDA to fund research aimed at keeping food supplies, and especially meat, on pace with demand.
Much meat, few customers. Butchers loafed during the 1910 meat protest
At first, animal scientists focused on research thatwould help farmers improve livestock nutrition for single-stomach animals. (Ruminant nutrition posed different problems.) Farmers and scientists alike knew that chickens and hogs were healthier and gained more weight more quickly when their diets contained animal-derived proteins such as fish meal, cod liver oil, or “tankage” (rendering-plant byproducts). Feed those same animals plant-based “vegetable” proteins, on the other hand, and they weighed less at maturity and were more prone to disease, which meant less meat for butchers and higher prices for consumers. But feed manufacturers relied on expensive imports: fish meal from Japan and cod liver oil from Norway. So scientists hunted for alternatives, supplements that would give livestock the same growth boost as animal-derived proteins but at lower cost.
The outbreak of World War II shifted the search from desirable to urgent. Thanks to Pearl Harbor on one hand and the Nazis on the other, supplies of fish meal and cod liver oil vanished. Those losses, along with war-driven scarcities of feedstuffs like corn and soybeans, led to predictable results: Farmers spent more to feed livestock, but their efforts produced relatively scrawny animals, higher prices (and a thriving black market in meat) for civilians, and fewer pounds of protein for troops. Those developments unnerved federal officials and politicians who remembered the meat protests of World War I.
In the 1940s, farming became a patriotic imperative
Prodded by the White House, Pentagon, and farmers, scientists (themselves in short supply as men and women exchanged lab coats for military uniforms) raced to find an animal protein substitute. Some conducted feeding trials using combinations of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Others pinned their hopes on sweet potatoes and...