Industrial trade shows are curious places. Potential customers milling around more than 500,000 square feet of exhibit space; technoscientific exuberance and hype; snappy names and enticing displays; hungry and nondiscriminatory grabs for whatever is free; networking spaces facilitated by their offerings of food and drink; and extravagant product demonstrations all collide in the fervor of selling, or at least showing off, the most innovative piece of technology. Here are other details that make industrial trade shows political places of assemblage: the racialized, gendered nature of maintenance and service work that help make an event as large as this run; the uneven representations of corporate power through the different sizes of trade floor allotment and who runs them; the ways in which some companies use gendered labor and performance (high heels, tight and low-cut shirts, and bright red lipstick) to attract onlookers to their booth; and the juxtaposition between these efforts against a company’s tagline behind them that says, as one example, “Leading the world to the future.”
This blog post draws on participant observation at industrial agribusiness trade shows, specifically the International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE). The IPPE is the largest trade show displaying domains (technology, service, innovation, supplies) related to the entire gamut of processing, feed manufacture, and the production of eggs, meat, poultry. Given the enormity of all there is to study, my efforts are mainly focused on the marketing materials around and promises of future feed that industry trade shows enroll. As such, this blog post focuses on a few developments in the arenas of ‘nature-based’ methods of industrial farming that target the industrial animal microbiome.
Microbiome hype in industrial agritech spaces
The question of “what feeds our food” occupies a significant place in the agricultural history books. Experimentation with different composition of feeds that increase the food conversion rate center on how and what to feed industrial animals in order to maximize production rates. Such attempts have involved fishmeal taken from the Peru-Chile Coast that revolutionized post-WWII production of meat in the Global North (Wintersteen 2021); waste produced from food processes, mining, and pharmaceutical industries that came to act as important inputs for American agriculture (Landecker 2019; Romero 2021); antibiotics which, since being introduced in the 1930s, have not only drastically transformed human health but also global food production, given antibiotic overuse in animal feed that has facilitated rapid animal growth in a shorter amount of time (Kirchhelle 2018); and the transformation of animal stomachs into experimentation in efforts to safeguard a variety of problems ranging from human health, food insecurity, and atmospheric pollution (Welk-Joerger 2020). These experimentations in feeding have significantly contributed to the transformation of industrial agribusiness into one of the largest and longest-standing oligopolistic corporations in America (Constance and Heffernan 1991). As such, the metabolic concerns over feed and feeding represent crucial sites of inquiry regarding future food production.
‘Nature-based’ methods of animal farming build on these histories of animal metabolic experimentation that locate the industrial animal gut microbiome as a site for future optimization. Enzymes, patented bacteria, vitamins, effective probiotics, peptides, and trace minerals (such as copper) have all been proposed as mechanisms to further maximize animal growth and production. These methods promise to maintain, if not exceed, the same levels of growth achieved through antibiotics but through probiotic mechanisms. Emerging claims over the gut-brain axis, the microbiome, and new metabolic pathways that promote more efficient energy conversion rates represent new targets of biomedical and technoscientific intervention across human and non-human animal scales and sectors. As the logic goes, if these ‘nature-based’ methods can enhance nutrient-energy conversion through more efficient gut absorption of nutrients, then less feed would be required to yield quick and massive amounts of growth. The animal gut ecosystem is thus cast as a providential area that promises everything from increasing animal productivity (growing animals faster), decreasing carbon emissions (less energy used to grow animal feed), and guaranteeing continued food security (more global food production).
These conversations come at a time where concerns over antibiotic overuse in industrial animal agriculture and its concomitant threats of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) are urgent. Yet current global policy changes, regulation, and antibiotic management are patchworked and lack the kind of long-term reform that would challenge the philosophies undergirding factory-like production of cheap meat (Kirchhelle 2018). In light of this complex setting, ‘nature-based’ animal farming positions itself as a shiny, “natural” tech-fix that still helps maintain the system of global capital food production as-is, an example of what Jesse Goldstein (2018) has termed “non-disruptive disruptions.”
Places such as industrial agribusiness trade shows depend upon hype and techno-utopic maneuvers to make a sale. These promises about the future consistently flatten complex social issues into qualms easily solvable through free market enterprises and investments, advertised as technological solutions while masking significant consequences and details (Downey 1998). Examples such as “Bringing nature back to the farm” (AGRITX) and “Because nature gets it right” (Nuvio Poultry) imply that a return to ‘natural’ ways of farming is not only seamless, but the way it should be and has always been. But these imaginations of an ostensibly pure form of nature to go back to not only belie the fact that industrial agribusiness has long grown big off of the blurring of animal biology and technoscience, but also by occluding the realities of environmental, human, and nonhuman destruction left in its wake. Such appeals to so-called natural modes of farming through animal gut optimization and the scientism of the industrial animal microbiome feed into the magical thinking that ‘natural’ foods and healthy gut microbiota (for consumers as well as the animals that are consumed) are unquestionably desirable. Yet sentiments such as these, transformed into enticing marketing tools for investors, industry affiliates, and even consumers, still maintain the bedrock assumption that the factory, like the production of cheap meat, can be “naturalized” into acceptance and goodwill.
Attention to the industrial animal microbiome occupies an uneasy space within a flurry of settings in which microbial relations seemingly promise everything from better health to a drastic reconfiguration of what it means to be “human.” But within the context of global capitalism, ‘nature-based’ methods of farming continue to be inescapable from the bottom line. The figure of the singular chicken and Signis’s “blooming biomes mean blooming profits: farm the biome” at the IPPE, combined with similar sentiments that explicitly promise to “turn animal health into business health” (BRI), make animal (gut) health isomorphic with capital accumulation. These moves to ‘nature-based’ agriculture also mirror how developments in precision agriculture and algorithmic rationality promise similar futures–more sustainability, more ‘necessary growth’–all while sustaining conventional industrial farming and business practices. In this way, ‘nature-based’ agriculture, and the promises of the industrial animal gut ecosystem that develop alongside it, become less of a “revolution” and more an “evolution” in the path of maintaining the structures of industrial agribusiness (Miles 2019).
Finally, the microbiopolitics of the industrial animal microbiome also invite in a slew of critical questions regarding how these maneuvers continue to shore up industrial agribusiness’s power as-is. Patented bacteria, which are central to any kind of probiotic turn in industrial agribusiness, raise concerns over who owns these lifeforms, echoing similar questions regarding the black-boxing of technology rampant in the race toward alternative meat (Subramaniam 2021). The considerable issues raised by the intersection of capital, biotechnology, and information also bring to the fore the ways in which American Big Ag is also considered to be Big Tech and Data companies (Bronson and Sengers 2022). Discussions of trace minerals that might aid in growth promotion, such as copper, are also implicated in the intensification of colonial mining practices in Latin America and Africa. Lastly, concerns over AMR and quick attempts to move beyond antibiotic reliance are also haunted by the historical and colonial roots that helped contribute to a global antibiotic infrastructure: the exportation of Anglo-American antibiotics to locations in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia through US developmental politics, pharmaceutical peddling, Western antibiotic plant franchises, and widespread marketing in the twentieth century (Kirchhelle 2018).
New metabolic frontiers and their discontents
This blog post detailed how hype, imaginations, and promises over the industrial animal microbiome circulate in industrial agritech circles. Such images, claims, and examples drive home the point that industrial animal metabolism–and the probiotic, ‘natural,’ patented tools designed to optimize it–is considered to be a profitable next frontier. Yet the complexities of the microbiome exceed the attempts at which to control it. While these industry claims insist on the evidence that ‘nature-based’ methods of farming prove to be a more effective way of growing industrial animals, it is too soon to see how these emerging claims will play out regarding the political concerns outlined above. There is no overarching consensus among the scientists I spoke with regarding what tools to best use. Some scientists speculated waiting for a “silver bullet” and would continue to experiment with combinations of therapies until it arrived. Others recognized that there was no such thing, and instead put energy toward maximizing the effects from different groupings of peptides, bacteria, and enzymes.
One interpretation of these examples could reflect what Alex Blanchette (2020) has incisively noted as the “creative desperation” involved in keeping the massive, fragile system of industrial agribusiness in existence. Several times I heard mention of trying to overcome the plateau regarding poultry hatchability rates, and even overheard one industry member bemoan to another that innovation was slowing in the poultry sector as compared to other agricultural sectors. Behind this hype rest the attempts to continuously solve, with technology and ever more razor-thin margins, the problems that global capitalism and industrial agribusiness continue to sow. As a result, it could be one of the many reasons in which fantasies of the microbiome carry the capacity to become all, and therefore nothing at the same time. Within industrial agritech and agribusiness spaces, these promises generate a proliferation of a set of claims that attempt to manage inherited capitalist ills in tenuous ecosystems. The optimism over emerging claims of ‘nature-based’ methods of industrial farming thus represents a critical case study in a larger context of human and nonhuman microbial relations–and the ways in which such relations may break or reproduce existing structures of power.
Blanchette, Alex. 2020. Porkopolis: American animality, standardized life, and the factory farm. Duke University Press.
Bronson, Kelly and Phoebe Sengers. 2022. “Big tech meets big ag: Diversifying epistemologies of data and power.” Science as Culture 31, no. 1: 15-28.
Constance, Douglas and William Heffernan. “The global poultry agro/food complex.” The International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, 1 (1991): 126 -142.
Downey, Gary Lee. 1998. The machine in me: An anthropologist sits among computer engineers. Routledge.
Goldstein, Jesse. 2018. Planetary improvement: Cleantech entrepreneurship and the contradictions of green capitalism. MIT Press.
Kirchhelle, Claas. 2018. “Pharming animals: a global history of antibiotics in food production (1935-2017).” Palgrave Communications 4, no. 1.
Landecker, Hannah. 2019. “A metabolic history of manufacturing waste: Food commodities and their outsides.” Food, Culture & Society 22, no. 5: 530-547.
Miles, Christopher. 2019. “The combine will tell the truth: On precision agriculture and algorithmic rationality.” Big Data & Society 6, no. 1.
Romero, Adam. 2021. Economic Poisoning: Industrial waste and the chemicalization of American agriculture. University of California Press.
Subramaniam, Banu. 2021. “The Ethical Impurative: Elemental Frontiers of Technologized Meat.” In Meat! A transnational analysis, edited by Sushmita Chatterjee and Banu Subramaniam, 254-278.
Welk-Joerger, Nicole. 2020. “Feeding Others to Feed Ourselves: Animal Nutrition and the Politics of Health, 1900-2019.” PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Wintersteen, Kristin. 2021. The Fishmeal Revolution: The Industrialization of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem. University of California Press.