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Factory farms are destroying us

Olivia Messer on the dire consequences of the American meat industry

There’s no doubt that we live in a culture of meat. In the United States, over 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year, 99 per cent of which are factory farmed. Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling book Eating Animals sheds much needed light on this issue. The book is an extensive investigation into the American meat industry, in which he estimates that the average American eats the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in their lifetime.

When you’re a vegetarian from the American South, you have to answer a lot of questions, ranging from “Why?” to “You know the Bible says it’s okay to eat meat, right?” In an effort not to proselytize or obnoxiously provoke, I’ve learned to simplify my answer into three parts: environmental concerns, animal cruelty, and health.


The environmental costs of the meat industry are varied in their nature, and giant in their scope. United Nations research indicates that animal agriculture “is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. … [Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
The facts surrounding the environmental impact of meat-eating are simply undeniable, and they have dire consequences for the future of our planet’s climate.

Journalist Jamais Cascio recently found that the greenhouse gas emissions arising every year just from the production and consumption of cheeseburgers – in the United States alone – is roughly the amount emitted by 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs. (To provide perspective, he estimates that there are now approximately 16 million SUVs currently on the road in the U.S.)

Cascio’s research takes into account the energy costs associated with everything from growing the feed for the cattle that provide the beef and cheese, to transporting and even cooking the components.

McGill professor of Geography & Earth System Science Program Navin Ramankutty agrees that the problem is deserving of serious attention. “In terms of carbon,” he said, “[animal] agricultural practices and the conversion of land for agriculture accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of total emissions today, and this number is even higher if you consider methane and nitrous oxide, two other greenhouse gases which are even more potent [than] CO2.”

Worse still, Foer writes that the meat industry is responsible for 37 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions of methane, which is about twenty-three times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

The meat industry’s profligate resource consumption is by no means limited to fossil fuels, however. According to Foer’s book, “nearly one-third of the land surface of the planet is dedicated to livestock.”

Then there’s the issue of waste, which is a multifaceted and complicated one. By waste, I mean a few different things: waste in the literal sense, a waste of lives, a waste of the remaining few of endangered species, a waste of resources, and even a waste of money. This industry is anything but efficient.
Regarding literal waste, Foer reports that “chicken, hog, and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states. In only three years, two hundred fish kills – incidents where the entire fish population in a given area is killed at once – have resulted from factory farms’ failures to keep their shit out of waterways. In these documented kills alone, thirteen million fish were literally poisoned by shit.”

Meat production also wastes hundreds of thousands of animal lives each year. Gail Eisnitz, author of the legendary Slaughterhouse, gave a presentation in 1999 in which she explained that for all of the animals killed in the process of meat consumption, many more are killed and never make it to the plate. “In 1997,” she stated, “a single hog corporation in Oklahoma reported losses of 420,000 dead hogs – that’s 48 hogs dying every hour. … They died as a result of the hostile, stressful, disease-promoting conditions inside these massive factories. … Thousands of piglets that were sick or didn’t grow fast enough were beaten to death. The industry calls this thumping or PACing: the industry acronym for ‘Pound Against Concrete.’”

Even the food fed to livestock has a significant environmental affect. The Guardian recently reported on a Swedish study conducted in 2003 that illustrated how “raising organic beef on grass rather than feed reduced greenhouse gas emissions by forty per cent and consumed 85 per cent less energy.”


Factory farms wreak havoc on more than just the environment. Because we live on this earth, our collective health is closely tied with pollution. What affects the planet inevitably affects us. It’s where our food grows. What you put in your body determines how it works, how long you live, and whether or not you get sick.

Foer’s book explains that there are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 76 million cases of food-borne illness in America each year. And we’re not just talking about the big ones you’ve all heard of—like salmonella and E. coli.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a genuinely terrifying problem that few people know about. MRSA is colloquially termed a flesh-eating-bacteria. The U.S. National Library of Medicine describes common symptoms as skin abscesses, fever, and shortness of breath. Mother Earth News explains that while MRSA was confined largely to hospitals in the past, its annual death toll has climbed to higher than that of HIV/AIDS related deaths in the United States.

But MRSA is not the only antibiotic resistant infection we should be worried about. The problem is the sheer volume of antibiotics fed to livestock every year. In the U.S., this figure tallies up to 17.8 million pounds. (Foer’s research, however, shows that the industry underreported its antibiotic use by at least forty per cent, and notes that 13.5 million pounds of those antimicrobials are currently banned from use in the European Union.)

This could have a seriously profound affect on our own ability to get over infections. According to Mother Earth News, “the CDC reports that two million people in the United States now contract an infection each year while in the hospital. Of those, a staggering 90,000 die. … Numbers such as that are prompting some medical investigators to suggest that we may be entering a ‘post-antibiotic era,’ one in which … ‘there would be no effective antibiotics available for treating many life-threatening infections in humans.’”

Contamination is perhaps an even larger problem with factory farming practices. Because of the speed and “efficiency” of machines used to tear chickens apart more quickly, the birds’ intestinal tracts are ripped apart, coating them in feces. As a result, Consumer Reports named a study in 2007 that found “83 per cent of poultry is infected with campylobacter or salmonella by the time it reaches the grocery store.” The study reported that this is the case even in organic and antibiotic-free brands.

This has worsened in the past thirty years, mainly because of a decision on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Foer details how “the poultry industry convinced the USDA to reclassify feces so that it could continue to use these automatic eviscerators. Once a dangerous contaminant, feces are now classified as a ‘cosmetic blemish.’”

His research cites the findings of a journalist named Scott Bronstein, who wrote a series on the subject for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which he described how “every week millions of chickens leaking yellow puss, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.”

In fact, because these chickens have to be drenched in chlorine before they’re shipped to buyers, Foer explains that “the birds [are] injected…with ‘broths’ and salty solutions to give them what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste.”

Indeed, according to Foer, largely as a result of the USDA’s lax regulation of the industry, “pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally.”

Animal cruelty and treatment of workers

Eisnitz’s book Slaughterhouse, published in 1997, was the first of its kind to expose the practices on the inside of these facilities built to dismantle and prepare meat for consumption. During her investigation, it became clear that the workers, not just the animals, at slaughterhouses and factory farms are victims of the system in which they work. For this reason, these operations often have 100 per cent (and higher) turnover rates per year.

Eisnitz found that factory farm work is among the most dangerous in the country, resulting in surprising numbers of workplace injuries, such as the loss of fingers and limbs, burns, and stabs. Some have died when crushed by falling animals, while others have simply dropped dead while working on the line. “Due to exorbitant line speeds,” she wrote, “in the last 15 years, we’ve seen a 1,000 per cent increase in cumulative trauma disorders. Even the meat industry itself reports that at current line speeds, workers’ bodies are physically used up after five years. In fact, that’s why these companies intentionally recruit illegal workers from places like Mexico – that completely and conveniently protects them from insurance claims.”

Factory farming’s treatment of the animals themselves is also appalling. Foer has found that approximately 200,000 cows per year simply collapse as result of illness and injury – hence the application of the term “downer.” Unfortunately, according to Foer, “in most of America’s fifty states it is perfectly legal (and perfectly common) to simply let downers die of exposure over days or toss them, live, into dumpsters.”

The issues of abuse are largely tied to the psychological trauma resulting from these types of jobs, and this is discussed in both Foer’s and Eisnitz’s books through many personal accounts.

In large part, the U.S. government’s failure to take action on animal cruelty stems from a legislation relating to “Common Farming Exemptions” (CFEs). These CFEs essentially exempt factory farms from the necessity of following animal cruelty laws. The loophole is that anything considered “common practice,” or done by a majority of farms, will overrule animal cruelty laws, making legal action on abuses incredibly difficult.

Family Farms

Less than one per cent of the animals killed for meat consumption in the U.S. come from family farms. But the industry certainly still exists. Much like the independent farmers interviewed in Eating Animals, the family growers that I spoke to were willing to discuss their jobs, and genuinely concerned about the health and safety of their animals.

Jack and Lisa Ivey own a cattle and poultry farm just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Jack started farming fulltime about ten years ago, and they now have about 250 heads of cattle along with four chicken houses. “You know, everybody’s called to do something – my husband’s called to be a farmer and he loves it, and he’s great at it and he’s very passionate about it,” Lisa says.

Lisa explains that they spend a lot of time with their animals, building relationships with them. “My husband loves those cattle like we love our dog…and he takes that very seriously. He’s responsible for taking care of them, if one of them is sick – if we can’t take care of them, the vet comes to our house and takes care of them for us.” I sincerely doubt you’d see that kind of treatment in a factory farm.

While there may not be sufficient evidence to suggest that family farms have less environmental impact, or use fewer natural resources, they certainly have a far better record in terms of animal cruelty and treatment of workers. Unfortunately, substantially fewer people are going into small farming now than they used to. Lisa confirmed this. “It’s not an easy job. It takes a special type of person to do it, [but] I would tell you that the majority of independent farmers care for their animals like we care for them,” she said.

As much as possible, this concern extends to the choices Lisa and her husband make with regard to selling their cattle. “We sell to barns that don’t use hot sticks, because who wants to be shocked in the rear end? Nobody I know.”

Lisa explained that the combined forces of large corporations and the U.S. government make it hard to survive as an independent farmer today. “[Family farmers] are gettin’ pushed out. It’s very distressing to me because it’s the government. The government is putting in so many regulations, and…we don’t feel it as much here in the south, but you’ve got to keep in mind – if we were out in the Midwest…where there’s a lot of the big corporate farms – we probably couldn’t operate out there. We would just kind of be pushed out.”

Farming also requires a unique level of dedication and commitment. “You can’t just go on a three-week vacation. Who is going to take care of the animals? … The reality is nobody wants to be tied to all of that responsibility. I think that’s another reason why the independent farmer is going away. It takes a lot to make money…but I also think people don’t want the hassle. It’s a lot of work.”

The problem is that independent farms can’t produce nearly enough to feed everyone who wants to eat meat. North Americans may well have to reduce our consumption of meat if we are to start taking these questions of our health and environment seriously. “The most current data even quantifies the role of diet,” writes Foer. “Omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.”

You are responsible for what you eat, and where you get your food. It’s abundantly clear that being concerned with the environment and consuming meat don’t exactly compliment each other. Not that meat is inherently evil – just don’t reprimand those who drive Hummers whilst shoving cheeseburgers down your gullet.