Gastropod looks at food through the lens of science and history, via a podcast and extraordinarily well-written articles on its website. Gastropod provides unique and thought-provoking work; this month’s feature is no exception.

Co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley have produced a compelling narrative about a particular period in livestock breeding in the U.S., its relationship to an interest in human eugenics during that same time, and how those impulses intertwined in the quest to produce more milk.


“In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons. In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine – but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.”


We learn details of the USDA’s “Better Sires: Better Stock” campaign, which was launched in 1919. In 1924, the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial.”


“This mimeographed pamphlet contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce. The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should “wear a large metal star and carry a gun,” and whose role, given the trial’s foregone conclusion, was “to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue.”

To provide context, the editors locate livestock breeding within the history of a larger national discussion about human eugenics, including a key Supreme Court decision that rationalized state-sanctioned “social” engineering. The comparative – and some would argue, somewhat parallel – aspect of the two topics (and all of the disturbing issues that human eugenics brings to mind) is thought-provoking.

Livestock breeding has led to important innovations, as the piece in Gastropod points out, “in IVF, in genomics, and in big data analysis.” And it has also led to an increased production of milk. But as highlighted by the recent situation at the USDA’s meat research facility in Nebraska, ethical aspects continue to plague us. We must know the history of a given situation, or we are certainly doomed to repeat it.

Definitely, absolutely worth a read and a listen.