By Gene Baur
Farming has been drastically altered in the U.S. over the last 25 years. Small farms have been replaced by large, industrialized factory operations, and animals and the natural world have become mere commodities in the process. While agribusiness has mastered the art of “growing” and killing animals faster and on a larger scale than ever before, the costs and negative results of this so called “cheap” food system are severe for us all.
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), which included experts like former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, conducted “a comprehensive, fact-based and balanced examination of key aspects of the farm animal industry.” This research concluded: “Industrial farm animal production systems are largely unregulated, and many practices common to this method of production threaten public health, the environment, animal health and well-being, and rural communities.”
Against Our Better Natures
Factory farms confine animals by the thousands in massive warehouses, treating them like production units rather than as living, feeling individuals. Millions are packed in cages and crates so tightly that they can’t walk, turn around or even stretch their limbs. Mahatma Gandhi was correct when he said, “The moral progress of a nation can be judged by how its animals are treated.” We have some soul searching to do here in the U.S., where we currently subject more than 9 billion farm animals to appalling cruelties. Acting with callous disregard for the feelings of other animals undermines our empathic natures and humane sensitivities.
Recent research conducted by representatives of the meat industry surfaced our feelings on this matter. More than 40% of consumers surveyed agreed that our country was on the wrong track in terms of how we produce food, with another 20% uncertain about the soundness of our food supply. We feel that there is something wrong but we may be too busy, tired or confused to do much about it, so we have accepted the status quo without appreciating its long term implications. Agribusiness counts on our complacency.
Against Our Better Interests
Animals who are raised for food are denied their most basic needs and suffer both physical and psychological disorders as result. Stressed and confined in filthy, cramped quarters, the animals we eat are constantly at risk for disease. In response, agribusiness depends on regular quantities of drugs and other chemical inputs to keep the animals alive and productive. The majority of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals. This excessive and irresponsible use of antibiotics has contributed to the development of virulent, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which render these formerly life-saving drugs useless for treating illnesses in people.
The spread of disease from factory farming is exacerbated when waste products, including manure and the remains of animals who have died, are used to feed animals being raised for meat, milk and eggs. Hundreds of millions of farm animals die in the factory farming system each year, and by turning their carcasses into feed, the animal agriculture industry can save on disposal costs and feed costs at the same time. The whole system is unhealthy and irresponsible. Disease is so rampant, that the U.S.D.A. explicitly allows diseased animals to be slaughtered and sold for human food, because excluding these animals would result in financial losses for agribusiness.
We subject animals to unnecessary suffering and early deaths, and in turn, we experience the same. Food-borne sicknesses infect millions of Americans every year, killing thousands, and whether these illnesses spring from animal products or other foods, the source of the contamination is often traceable to factory farms. Consuming too many animal products also clogs our arteries and leads to heart disease, which is our nation’s number one killer. We suffer from preventable illnesses and premature deaths, while heath care costs skyrocket. Leading health experts estimate that 70% to 80% of U.S. health care costs could be eliminated by replacing animal products with a whole foods, plant-based diet. We eat food that makes us sick, then take drugs to keep us alive. This system makes no sense.
Against Our Future
Factory farming is one of the top contributors to our planet’s most significant environmental problems according to a report by the United Nations, which cited “problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” The report said that the livestock industry is a greater contributor to global warming than the transportation industry. It’s important to lessen our transportation footprint, but we could have an even larger impact by changing the foods we put on our plates.
Raising animals for food is terribly wasteful. It demands vast quantities of increasingly scarce resources, including water, topsoil and fossil fuels. Growing plant foods and consuming them directly is much more efficient and sustainable than growing corn and soybeans to feed animals before we consume them. Industrial animal farming depletes and squanders precious natural resources, and pollutes what remains. The amount of manure generated by animals in factory farms is too much for the environment to absorb. It poisons the land and water, and sends noxious fumes into the air, threatening ecosystems, wildlife and people who live nearby.
Our food system is in desperate need of reform; people, animals and the Earth are suffering. Thankfully, we are beginning to pay attention. Many citizens are demanding more transparency around how food, and especially animal products, are produced. We are no longer comfortable accepting how agribusiness keeps animals who are raised for food hidden from us. When agribusiness has introduced legislation to ban the average person from documenting abuses on factory farms, their proposals have triggered widespread popular revulsion and have been defeated. We are waking up to the cruelty inflicted on animals and demanding better for them, and for ourselves.
And, we should continue to press producers, distributors and our government representatives for even more transparency about animal agriculture and healthier food options. Each of us should speak out about local legislation exempting factory farms from environmental standards, subsidies in the upcoming Farm Bill that favor producing crops for animals on factory farms instead of for people, and the lack of legal protections for farm animals, which allows the meat industry to neglect cows, pigs, chickens and other animals in ways that cause contamination, illness and egregious suffering. Encourage your grocery store to carry more plant-based alternatives to common animal products. Choose a veggie burger, instead of a beef one; soy milk, instead of cow’s milk. These individual actions can make a tremendous difference.
In fact, more people are opting out of our industrialized food system in favor of local and sustainably produced foods. Farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are sprouting up across the U.S., while restaurants and other food retailers are providing more sustainably produced healthful plant food options. As I drove across the country earlier this year, on a culinary tour of vegetarian eating, I also saw community gardening projects sprinkled among urban and suburban areas. These programs allow us to grow healthy foods and recreate a sense of community. I am very happy to see more citizens thinking about their food choices and making decisions that are more aligned with their values and interests.
By learning about factory farming’s impact on your local community and our country, urging our elected representatives to support reforms and requesting more plant-based foods in our grocery stores and restaurants, we will be the change our food system needs. Through our farmers markets, CSAs and community gardens, we can share foods, recipes and meals that represent a better, healthier and more humane food supply. One that centers on eating plants instead of animals; one that supports our health instead of undermining it; and one that helps us preserve the natural world, and our relationship to it, in a way that connects us to our better natures and the best we have to offer each other.
Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, campaigns to raise awareness about the negative consequences of industrialized factory farming. He has conducted hundreds of visits to farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses to document conditions, and his photos and videos exposing factory farming cruelty have been aired nationally and internationally, educating millions. His book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, a national best-seller, is a thought-provoking investigation of the ethical questions surrounding beef, poultry, pork, milk, and egg production — as well as what each of us can do to promote compassion and help stop the systematic mistreatment of the billions of farm animals who are exploited for food in the U.S. every year.
Baur, and more than 30 experts from across the public health, environmental, and animal welfare movements, will be speaking about the consequences of factory farming at the first-ever National Conference to End Factory Farming: For Health, Environment and Farm Animals in Arlington, Virginia on October 27-29. Click here for more information.
The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of Gene Baur and/or Farm Sanctuary, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are invited to join the discussion through comments, but please note that in terms of the National Geographic Community Rules, all communications should be civil and respectful, and on topic. Abusive comments will not be published.