October 20, 2014

Sci + Tech | March 12, 2012
Bullshit on your plate
Bug burgers, manure foam, factory farming, and the future of meat
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The fact that we can choose to consume animal protein of all varieties at every meal is only made possible by an uncomfortably disgusting supply chain. Many consumers rarely give a single thought to the industrial horror that enables this voracious consumption, simply buying the neatly packaged results of this process. As a red-blooded Albertan carnivore, I participate in this process. In the context of a growing world of seven billion hungry people, we should at least be able to stomach the disturbing reality of the meat on our plate. Among those of us who eat meat – roughly 96 per cent of Canadians – it often seems an unspoken reality to not talk about the process behind its production.

Right now, we “produce” over 58 billion animals every year to satisfy our hunger. The issue boils down to one of supply and demand. How can you maximize the amount of meat produced in the shortest amount of time? The answer that the market has come up with is the factory farm. Forget idyllic scenes of frolicking livestock living out happy lives before a humane slaughter, well over 99 per cent of all animals produced for consumption will come from factory farms. To maximize profits, time and space for growing is kept to an absolute minimum. An average factory farmed chicken will spend its full 39 day life (yes, seven weeks) locked in a cage with space less than a quarter of the size of a laid out newspaper. Thousands of chickens will occupy a single building, stacked on top of each other without any light and no ventilation, literally shitting on top of each other for their entire miserable lives. Pig and cow operations aren’t much better, with these social animals being confined in similarly appalling shit-soaked conditions.

To allow a profitable percentage (owners expect 5-10 per cent of animals to die in on the farms) of the animals to reach an age where they can be sent off to slaughter, they are continually pumped full of growth hormone and antibiotics to stave off any infections caused by a constant contact with shit. In the US, between 70 and 80% of all antibiotics produced annually are used in the agriculture industry. This absurd use of antibiotics has already led to antibiotic resistant bacteria evolving as well as becoming communicable with human workers.

Most people are not swayed by humanitarian arguments for the cogs in the meat machine, preferring not to give a shit. It is the shit, however, that is one of the largest issues.  A single farm of 2,500 dairy cows produces as much shit as an entire city of over 450,000 people. Unlike the comparable city, it is virtually certain that this shit will go untreated, with much of the excess shit from cow, pig and chicken farms simply being stockpiled on site. Some of this concentrated shit will infiltrate the local aquifers. Some factory farm operations simply spray it into the air, where the aerosolized shit can settle on unsuspecting people downwind. On some pig farms, ‘manure foam’ that develops as a byproduct of all the stockpiled shit has even started to explode, killing the thousands of pigs inside the barn with a literal explosion of their own shit. With all that decomposing shit comes an enormous production of methane gas – indeed, methane is associated with agriculture accounting for over 7 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

With the sheer volume of shit, many animals will be shipped to one of the handful of slaughterhouses will almost certainly be caked in it. The volumes of animals regularly processed at these facilities make a rigorous cleanup of the meat impossible. Slaughterhouses are notorious for their poor record on worker rights, in particular exploiting for vulnerable immigrant communities with little hope of legal protection. The speed on the ‘disassembly line’ necessary to pull a profit makes human error very likely, with the net result of shit from the poorly butchered animal digestive tracts often ends up on other pieces of meat. Thankfully, cooking the meat will usually kill the bacteria associated with all this shit, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the shit is there in the first place. Unfortunately, even the greenest organic farm produced meat will most likely be processed in one of these slaughterhouses, so that alone is not a solution to all that contamination.

This may be leaving a bad taste in your mouth, so you may be asking what choices there are to replace it. As a devoted meat eater (and frequent Schwartz’s customer), I’m not content to simply accept vegetarianism as the logical conclusion from all this shit (though I rarely eat chicken, based on the amount of shit per unit weight).  Some scientists agree that meat should stay on the menu, and have been working on alternatives – such as growing the meat in the lab. Dutch Scientists recently used stem cell technology to produce the first lab-grown burger in history. While the costs are currently prohibitive (it cost $200,000 to produce the burger), at least the technology was shown to exist. Mark Post, the senior researcher for the team as well as the gourmand lucky enough to eat the burger, is optimistic that many of the technological hurdles will be worked out if research is continued.

Another alternative, currently shunned because of the ‘ick’ factor, is to eat insects for the protein. From a pure industrial perspective, insect cultivation is 600-800 per cent more efficient than current practices, doesn’t require any antibiotics due to the lack of human-transferable diseases, and barely produces any shit. Instead of cutting down rain forests to make way for ranchland, insects can be grown on sugarwater indoors. Bugs, like mealworms or grasshoppers are already eaten in many countries as a delicacy, and could be produced and processed to resemble our favorite processed food at a fraction of the cost of regular meat production, without the enormous land use and environmental costs we accept.
The prospect of chowing down on a ‘bug mac’ may be unappetizing, but it doesn’t come with the baggage of the shitty industry that produces virtually all the meat we eat anyway. As consumers who are unlikely to shun meat altogether, it is clear that we will have to think outside the lunchbox if we want to keep all our favorite dishes on the menu.

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