“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Ghandi’s statement has never seemed more relevant or timely than now when the horrors of factory farming are coming into public consciousness. People have been aware of these problems since the late Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, was published in the 1970s. Since then factory farms have become much larger in order to meet increased demand. At the same time the animal rights movement and the dissemination of horrific imagery has also grown, from chickens in cramped cages, to one-week old calves locked in solitary confinement (their mothers are milked by machines).
From an early age we are sold the image of an idyllic farm - Old MacDonald with his happy animals on a grassy knoll. For many people, living and working on a family farm is an honorable way of life. The difference now is that the majority of our food is not coming from a family farm, but a factory farm, at great cost to the environment, to animals, and to our own health.
Modern industrial farms or factory farms are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) by the industry itself. A CAFO is defined by a facility concentrating large numbers of animals in confined small spaces in an area without vegetation. Typically there can be a 100,000 or more confined animals in a single large CAFO, depending on the species. There are roughly 300,000 facilities in the US today.
Stacy Gibson, who writes about the ethics of raising livestock, tells us that CAFO’s came about after World War II as part of the widespread industrialization of agriculture in America. This industrialization of farming was considered a part of the ‘progress’ movement and a positive gain in the economy. But what has been an attempt to provide low cost meat to the masses has become what Charles Patterson describes as the Eternal Treblinka (in his book of the same name). Gibson notes that CAFO’s are responsible for the deaths of 50-60 billion farm animals (mostly chickens, pigs and cows) annually. The plight of these animals – living in cramped cages all their lives, without time outside, companionship or any quality of life - has been compared to death camps and to human slavery (see the book: The Dreaded Comparison by Marjorie Spiegell). The lives of these animals are indeed nasty, brutish and short.
Some people choose not to support CAFO’s and will buy animal products only if the treatment of the animals is labeled humane. There is a growing market for humane, organic and free-range animal products, particularly free-range eggs and hormone free chicken. Humane means that animals were not raised in cages. They are pasture raised and grass fed. You can have hormone free chicken that never touches the ground outside its cage. Hormone free only implies that the animal was not given antibiotics.
Animals in CAFO’s are injected with antibiotics regularly, necessary in cramped living quarters where most will become sick, and pesticides and manure containing pathogens are used regularly for their feed. Humans who consume these animal products are being exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria, heart disease and cancer. The World Watch Institute reports CAFO’s are also the breeding grounds for deadly virus’ such as Bird Flu, and Influenza, among others. They predict that a factory farm born illness is probable within the next twenty years and will potentially cause millions of deaths.
The big business of factory farms have other detrimental and life threatening side effects, besides the threat to our health, and the ethical treatment of animals. From an environmental perspective, this industry is largely responsible for destroying finite fresh water reserves, using up vast amounts of arable land for feed (60% of all arable land in the US), destroying biodiversity in various ways, and creating immense land and air pollution due to the vast amounts of animal waste that often seeps into groundwater and contaminates rivers and aquifers. The environmental impact of CAFO’s on the environment is greater than all other industries combined and has been shown to destroy the livability of rural areas where they are located. Communities in the eastern part of NC (a big area for Hog CAFO’s) are suffering a growing mass of health problems, decreased quality of life and mental stress because of this industry. Economically, CAFO’s have been noted to bring the prices of animal products down, but is it worth it in the end? Not only do local and small farmers lose their ability to compete, but we are also putting the health and well being of everyone at risk.
The United Nations 2006 landmark report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, demonstrates that the meat industry is the biggest driver of anthropogenic (human centered) climate change, contributing to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That is more carbon than the whole transportation sector combined. A study by the World Watch Institute claims the amount is closer to 51% if we consider the transportation of animals. Numbers like these indicate is that environmental integrity and animal welfare are deeply interwoven.
Industrial animal agriculture is harming the planet and also our humanity. While there are little to no CAFO’s in the southern highlands, Eastern North Carolina is one of the biggest producers of pork. When you buy meat at the grocery store, you are very likely buying a factory farmed animal product. An option, for those who want meat, is to look frequent your farmers market; it is likely that you can rest assured the animal was treated humanely. Making changes for the environment, for our health and for animals is more critical than ever before. Ghandi’s prescriptive statement “how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other” is a step in the right direction.
Dr. Rachel Bridgers, Assistant Editor