With a Side of E. coli and 50 Gallons of Water

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.


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.


  1. That was great, Kerri. I recently took a course called the Science of Food Choice which discussed this same problem. Before the class I had never realized that a lot of the meat being sold at the local grocery store was the product of CAFOs. Throughout the semester I tried to think of ways to incentivize local produce and meat, as well as free-range and grass-fed livestock, but it was difficult because the reality is money will beat out environmental benefits most of the time. The benefits of eating organic foods can be abstract and it is hard to see the immediate benefit being much greater than saving some money by buying meat from CAFOs. I definitely recognized if not stated myself several of the excuses that you mentioned. This fact made me realize that this really is a lifestyle choice. I guess the question is: is it easier for three million Americans to change their habits or for Congress to pass a bill on CAFOs? This has the Tragedy of the Commons written all over it so I definitely agree that federal incentives need to be put into place to propel this movement forward.

  2. I really enjoyed the sustainability take on the choices for vegetarianism and health reasons alongside the usual ethical reasons. I’d like to see how sustainable organic food could be in terms of meeting the dietary needs of a population. If the Green Revolution sprouted out of a need to feed more people, can we be fed without the need for CAFOs? And in the end, how much does the meat actually differ from free-range meat?

    I definitely see the reason for abandoning meat due to the conditions of these CAFOs. We have had this conversation before and every time I am more convinced to adopt vegetarianism. However, how can vegetarianism compromise with cultural practices? In Mexican culture (and most Latin American cultures), families bond significantly by cooking and sharing foods together and several dishes are tied to specific holidays. Most of these dishes have meat and probably come from similar CAFOs. How does one reconcile the two sides: culture and sustainability/ethics? I guess the answer might be a change in the way livestock for meat is farmed from a group of people wishing to keep their meat eating practices for sake of culture while still caring for the environment. Thanks for an interesting read.

  3. You raise a very interesting point when you mention your parent’s opinion of grass-fed beef ; namely, that they believe that humanely raised, sustainable meat is a scam. This is an extremely prevalent attitude in the United States where consumers have become used to artificially cheap meats. Government corn subsidies, combined with inexpensive nutritional supplements, have allowed meat producers to drastically reduce the per pound cost of meat, and consumers have responded in an economically rational way by increasing their meat consumption. Therefore, I agree with you that the economic incentives (aka prices) of sustainable meat need to be altered to compensate for the added expense of space, time and quality feed that its production entails. But, it would be much more effective to get rid of the corn subsidies than to additionally distort prices by subsidizing sustainable meat. However, the problem lies in the politics. It is a general rule that it is a political nonstarter to suggest policies that directly or even indirectly (as is the case for meat) make food more expensive. This rule is doubly true when a sixth of the population is living in poverty. CAFOs are an environmental disaster and an ethical disgrace. However, I’m sadly resigned to the fact that until the economy makes a marked improvement, they’re a disgusting fact of American life.

  4. I think your blog was really eye opening. I think that people are becoming more aware of trying to eat less meat, or at least eat healthier meat without all of the additives and drugs. But even me, someone who tries to eat less meat and better meat throughout the majority of the year can hardly resist myself when all of the turkey and ham show up on the table. I think this issue and your blog is one that could have a significant impact on meat usage during the holidays. I know I will definitely think twice before going back to the same meats come Christmas that I ate for Thanksgiving. I think the question truly is, how do we make people more aware so that they are unable to continue with the “what I don’t know, can’t hurt me” mentality. I think Niara is right that it will likely take Congressional action to create change on this issue. Money is tight, and the harmful impacts of these meats on our bodies and the environment are much more difficult to quantify. Hopefully, they will pick this issue up right after they fix the budget crisis and avoid the fiscal cliff.

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