The Call and Times, Column 29 – The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

29 09 2015

(September 13, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

Take a trip to the meat section of your local supermarket. Pick up a package of ground beef; or a chicken leg; or a filet of cod. What do you actually know about that product? Sure, it came from a cow, or a chicken, or a fish. But how many (hundreds of) different cows did that ground beef come from? How small was the enclosure where the chicken was kept? Was the fish wild-caught, or farm-raised? How were these animals treated, what were they fed, and what was the effect of their production on the local environment? It is likely impossible to find the answers to these questions on the packaging. And in all honesty, that’s probably because you wouldn’t like the answers if they were there.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the current, abhorrent state of the conventional meat industry in the United States. I believe that knowledge drives changes in consumer buying patterns. I also believe that, when consumers reject the practices of an industry, it forces the industry to change or perish in its own filth. Therefore, it is my duty to scream this information from the rooftops – here goes.

First, let me introduce CAFOs – that stands for “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”. To envision what this means, imagine you and 1000 of your closest friends standing, shoulder-to-shoulder inside your house, in a few inches of your own excrement, for a few years of less-than-comfortable existence. When one of you gets sick, imagine how fast it spreads to the rest? When one of you dies, imagine the others simply cannibalizing him, for lack of something more mentally stimulating. Welcome to modern industrial agriculture in the good ol’ USA!

Cows live in feedlots, often a covered area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement; if they’re lucky, there’s no roof and they can see the sun. Pigs are raised in general, close-quarters confinement. Chickens live in squalid conditions in an enclosed barn, cooped in battery cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re egg layers, and sans the cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re meat birds.

In case you’re wondering, birds living in these filthy, crowded conditions engage in stress behaviors like rubbing their bodies against the side of the cages. We can’t have scarred meat if we wish to sell a perfect (-looking) product in the grocery store – hence, meat birds are cage-free! There was a bill in the Rhode Island legislature to also remove the battery cages in egg-laying operations, but one of our largest local egg producers, which sells its products at a premium price under the false guise of humane-treatment, adamantly and successfully opposed the bill. I guess corporate profits are more important than some minute semblance of animal welfare. That sounds reasonable.

Let’s take a look at diet. Chickens are natural seed-eaters, so I guess it’s good that they eat grains. But their diets in factory farms consist of other fun additions like arsenic and food dyes, so that the eggs are not so anemic that you can’t distinguish the yolk from the white.

Cows, goats, sheep, and llamas, on the other hand, are collectively called “ruminants” – they are herbivores with a special type of stomach that allows them to digest grass. Their natural diet is majorly grass-based, with some starchy plant matter, like roots and seeds, as would be found in a natural prairie. But by the magical logic that arises from ill-advised government subsidies and industrial agricultural practices, conventional farms feed these animals a diet exclusively of grains. That’s right: animals that are made to digest mostly grass are not fed grass, because that would cost too much. In case you are wondering, they are also fed supplemental goodies like chicken feathers and excrement (you read that right), and spoilt candy products – you know, food.

In addition, because there is little reason for these operations to use organic feed (scoff), some of the artificial pesticides and herbicides used on the grain fields can accumulate in the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat the grains.

As would probably be expected, the treatment of the animals in CAFOs is far from humane. They are also often given hormones to encourage unnaturally accelerated growth and increased milk production.

As a result of unnatural diets (especially in ruminants like cows) and stress, the animals are far more likely to get sick. A diet consisting entirely of grains makes the cows’ stomachs overly acidic; this encourages the development of e coli bacteria, which are capable of making human beings sick. To avoid this, they are often given therapeutic, daily doses of potent antibiotics with their feed, an incredibly reckless practice almost singly responsible for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria that we occasionally hear about in the news.

Just in case the animal treatment and human health conditions weren’t enough, the environment suffers under this system. Grain agriculture is generally horrible for the environment, so feeding these completely unnecessary crops to animals only compounds the problem. The large amount of manure that is produced by animals in confined operations (mind you, this is often laced with e coli) is rarely dealt with in an environmentally-constructive manner. Rather than being used to build the topsoil as is entirely possible, it becomes an environmental pollutant when it runs off into public waterways.

If everything above has made you sad, or angry, or queasy, I’m happy to hear it – that was my goal. But I want you to know: this applies only to industrial meat production. This applies to the system that produces the 10 cent chicken wings, and $2/pound ground beef, and cheap fast food.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. This system is the product of the past few decades of irresponsible, industry-driven agricultural policy. It is a huge, expensive mistake, and it is the job of everyone who knows about the issue – which now includes all of us – to relegate it to the history books.

The best way to change this is to starve Goliath, and instead feed David. We must entirely reject the system of factory farming, insofar as it is possible to do so, and substitute our own. Our health, our environment, and our collective karmic load will benefit from doing this.

Surprise, surprise: we can start by growing and raising food ourselves. Even if this only means a small organic vegetable garden, you can save money on food that can then be redirected to more responsible sources of animal products.

Better yet, raise micro-livestock. It is easy and inexpensive to raise a small flock of chickens for eggs and meat, and a small herd of rabbits for meat, in nearly any urban or suburban backyard. This ensures that your eggs and some of your meat are raised with human health and animal and environmental welfare as primary goals, and the savings can then be directed towards better choices for other animal products.

Skip the conventional meat, eggs, and milk from the supermarket, even if it’s labeled “natural” or “vegetarian fed” (unregulated terms that probably means the company is a factory farm). Buy from local farmers who you can talk to, whose operations you can see, who do it sustainably! Buy from farmers markets, making sure to actually ask the farmer about their practices. Buy from smaller grocery stores and marketplaces that themselves make an effort to source from local, sustainable operations.

To avoid everything I’ve mentioned above, you’re looking for pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and dairy products; wild-caught or sustainably-farmed fish; and eggs and meat from truly free-range, pasture-raised birds. Don’t rely on labels for this information. The food industries are experts at making you believe that a product is superior so that you’ll pay more for what amounts to a well-drawn label. Please email me if you’d like some more detailed guidance as to where you can buy your animal products, and which companies to support or avoid.

For all of you out there who have pets as I do, I know you can empathize with the ills of animal cruelty. Proverbs 12:10 says that “the righteous care for the needs of their animals”. Curiously, the Hebrew origin for that word “needs” is much deeper than the English lets on – it means the emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as the physical. The animals whose meat, eggs, and milk we consume – they are our animals. Their lives, how they were treated, how well their needs were met, become our responsibility as soon as we pay the system that produces them. Choose wisely.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.