On egg farms where male chicks are useless, millions of birds are simply thrown away in dumpsters like the one above where they die under the weight of other birds. [http://www.flickr.com/photos/farmsanctuary1/2162605201/]

By Kerri Devine

As the winter holidays kick into full swing, we find our dining room tables disappearing beneath stockpiles of decadent dishes.  Grandma’s honey-glazed ham, Mom’s famous hot crab dip, and Aunt Pat’s prize-winning apple pie have all been trademarks of the holiday spread for years and will most likely stay on the menu for years to come.  We find comfort in the food we know and are oftentimes reluctant to make changes.  Occasionally, the appetizer menu will accept a new recipe and the task of preparing the main dish will rotate, but we are ultimately creatures of habit.  Should one relative refrain from eating animal products, she would be labeled the ‘hippie’ of the family.  And if she were to suggest that all meat be removed from the table entirely? Hogwash.

 

And yet, the choice may not be ours to make perhaps within the next generation if we continue to rely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to provide our meals.  The food we eat is entirely unsustainable, plagued with antibiotic resistant microbes, and fueling global warming.  There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way America feeds itself, and I do not subscribe to the belief that a cultural revolution will be the impetus for change.  Strong political leadership must step into action and help open the eyes of the American people to the dangers of our factory farm dependency.

 

A factory farm is defined as a large-scale farming enterprise in which hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in extremely close quarters.  The phenomenon was born out of the convenient alignment of the Green Revolution with the need to feed a booming population in the mid twentieth century.  Coupled with increasingly meat-rich diets, factory farms have blossomed.  Their prevalence is misleading however, as the problems associated with these operations are many.  Let’s have a look at the facts.

 

  • Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.
  • Livestock farming accounts for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector.
  • Livestock farming produces 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions (which are 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions).
  • Every 1 kg of meat produced on a CAFO requires an input of 90 bathtubs worth of water.

-http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/drivers/dr4-energy-and-food-system.pdf

What’s more is that the industry is incredibly wasteful.  Despite labeling itself as an efficient and modern means of providing meat to the masses, there are many hidden costs associated with standard operation.  One large farm produces more raw waste than an entire U.S. city, with around a third of the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the country’s freshwaters coming from US livestock farming operations.  Pig slurry is 75 times more polluting than raw domestic sewage, and is often concentrated in extremely small areas near aquifers and groundwater supplies.  Overuse of antibacterials and hormones results in bioaccumulation.  According to a February 2011 FDA report, nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in 2009 for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic use for all farm animal species.

Those 29 million pounds of drugs end up in our food, our drinking water, and the land.  This heavy reliance and abuse of antibiotics is allowing for resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate through the food chain.  In the first nationwide studyof meat on supermarket shelves, it was found that 47% was infected with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, with more than half of those resistant to antibacterial drugs.

The facts are startling, and yet as consumers we tend to find ways to rationalize away anything that disturbs us.  For me, it was a simple choice to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, but then again- I was the kid who fed her chicken and steak to the dog under the table anyway.  My family, while supportive of my choice, has no interest in shying away from their chicken wings or prime rib.  They simply say, “Good for you, but I like meat too much.”  They have no interest in buying grass-fed meat or even organic food, which they label as a pricey scam.  Consumers subscribe to the mentality of “what I don’t know won’t kill me” and thus choose to eat their disease-ridden, drug-stuffed protein in ignorant bliss.

As a result, we need to take the choice away from the consumer.  Just as consumers can now no longer purchase products with CFCs as a result of protecting the ozone, consumers should no longer be able to buy factory-farmed meat in its current state.  There needs to be major reform of the industry if we want to continue eating meat for generations to come.  Very few industries enjoy the luxury of complete unregulated supply-and-demand enterprise from which CAFOs benefit.  The meat industry capitalizes on its many exemptions to abuse its resources and the animals it rears.  Despite that animal cruelty is illegal, most states have complete exemptions for animals meant for human consumption.  These exemptions need to go.  There needs to be more transparency from the industry, with explicit labels on food describing how the animal was reared, what drugs it received, and how it was killed.  Grocery stores that choose to buy from local, non-CAFO suppliers should receive government subsidies and incentives.  We need government support to enable sustainable farms to succeed and accelerate the inevitable destruction of CAFOs.

 As we take time this holiday season to share in family and food, it is important that we think twice about the food we pick up from the super market.  Do we really want to feed our loved ones global-warming causing soups of hormones and drugs? Support the local farms in your area in the spirit of the holidays, and help change the way America eats.

 
Nicholas School of the Environment | Box 90328 | Duke University | Durham, NC 27708

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