We have some responsibility for the condition of the future our families and friends will be living in. And regarding our responsibilities on any particular issue, we may choose . . . or not choose. But both lead to real consequences in the real world. Therefore, we will do well to choose . . . and choose wisely! From the destruction of our environment to the suffering and death of those we care about, wrong choices sometimes have terrible consequences. Morbidity and mortality statistics are usually insightful when defending such claims—so here’s a couple. Over the course of the 20th century the statistics on cancer in humans has increased from about 5% to about 33%—and this alarming fact is projected to continue worsening. There are multiple reasons for such statistics, and one of them includes our food supply. This is what I am going to try to focus on here. By the way it is heartbreaking as well for pet owners; some experts report that 60% of our pets are getting cancer now.
Most of us aren’t aware of the extent of damage caused by wrong food choices, but it’s serious—and we need to talk about it. The really bad news is that it appears our wrong choices will be even more detrimental to our children’s future. But on a more positive note—the good news is that if we make the right decisions in time we can make positive contributions to the future for our children and grandchildren. And we are surely obligated to do this because it was our choices that brought them here.
The big question going in to this essay is:
Are we making moral food choices?
To properly answer this question we have to consider how we answer our important questions. If our answers lead to flourishing of life for the inhabitants of the planet then the choices are surely moral. From that point we need only follow the dictates of morality; then we will be doing all we can for our children and grandchildren. For some people this may seem too tough, but my intuition informs me that most parents want to do what they can for their children—no matter what it takes.
For many of us it’s common, even comforting, to recall the images given us in stories of small farms with vast grassland for animals to graze. A few jingles about strong bones and muscles strategically placed by the appropriate industries—and we feel assured that this is normal, healthful and ethical. But it’s not! Some of our sciences give us important insights into how to best produce and consume our food. We learn more about what nourishes us best, what is causing morbidity and which processes are most destructive. Some of the common issues regarding our food production and consumption include: pollution to our air, water and land; even to our bodies. Also included; the detrimental effects of chemicals to our health and to the environment and now we are even concerned about what the industry takes from the animals exploited by it.
Within the familiar culture of the US most of us get used to buying our dinner wrapped in cellophane, ready for the barbecue. We don’t need to know much about what happens or what the damage is before the animals end up on the meat department display counter. And until the last few decades little was known about the damage done after we take those faceless, cellophane packages home. For most of us a ‘reasonable’ price is all the information needed, but this isn’t enough. We know too much now, we know it’s costing us—and the cost is too great! The incidence of vascular disease and cancer take a huge toll on life and the waste generated in the industry is destructive to everything that matters.
Animals have been farmed for human consumption for a long time. But the 20th century ushered significant changes in animal farming. New technologies allowed high density farming while economies demanded it. This high tech, high volume farming has commonly been referred to as factory farming, but in more sophisticated circles CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation) may be preferred. This mode of farming improves efficiency, lowering the cost of bringing animal products to the grocery shelves while, on the other side of the coin, exacerbating inherent problems in the animal production industry.
The food animal business (meat, dairy and egg) provides products highly demanded by the majority of the population. It also supplies jobs for a significant segment of society and financial gratification for those in the position to benefit. This industry has grown as a result of demand and the ability to supply that demand with modern tools and technologies. Along with the growth of the animal production industry is a growth in concern for the impact this industry has on the environment and ultimately . . . our lives.
As it is with many industries; the true cost of animal products is not revealed in the sticker price. The deferred costs (externalities), not paid at the time of purchase, will be paid eventually. These costs include: destruction of the environment, acute and chronic diseases and early death. We pay for the shortsighted choices of our predecessors and our children and grandchildren will continue the tradition by paying for ours.
There are movements trying to mitigate the negatives of the animal industry on the environment, but the effects of these movements are small in comparison to the combined pressures of the industries bearing down on our planet today. As well intentioned as these efforts are, they may slow the problem but will not solve it. Animal production and consumption is nothing new, but with crowding and technology, we now live in a different reality. The message to take away from this:
We cannot continue to do what our ancestors did and get away with it.
Exploitation of animals by humans is as American as apple pie, but this particular pie is bad for the planet—it’s bad for everything. We unwittingly propagate the destructive, inherited tradition of animal consumption. Our economy, our way of life, is heavily dependent on the animal industry for food, jobs, research, medicine and entertainment. Our children are injected with substances derived from animals from infancy. Baby’s first foods contain animal products. Kids are taught to be kind to animals and told to eat all the animal flesh on their plate and to drink all their milk. Students learn they need animal protein daily as it shows up significantly in the food pyramid. School cafeterias are required to offer milk. At restaurants most entrees contain animal products and ads from grocery stores mostly promote animal products. Clothing, furniture, cosmetics, medicine and many other things we take for granted are byproducts of the animal production industry.
Unfortunately, in large part because of the predominately animal protein rich diet we inherit, a significant portion of our population will succumb to the two major killers—cancer and vascular disease. There are myriad causes of cancer, but it is now understood that diet is one of them. The use of animal products is prolific and ubiquitous; eroding our environment, our health and ultimately . . . our happiness. In the quest to appease humanity’s insatiable appetite we’re destroying the planet. Until enough of the population realizes the egregious error in one of our most familiar and cherished customs, eating animals and using them as means to our ends, humanity will not be able to evolve to its moral and intellectual capacity. And until then, we may not be able to think our way out of harm’s way.
Agriculture is fairly equally divided between animal and produce production. Employing approximately three million people; agriculture contributes 1.9% to the GDP. Throughout written history, and beyond, people have been eating and using animals. The U.S. population of vegetarians is around 4.2% and vegans add another 0.2%. So it’s easy to see—the huge majority of our population contributes to the problems of producing animals for human consumption.
Eating animals does offer at least one real advantage. You can find something, kill it and eat it. We have been taught a diet absent animal products is inferior. “Single plant protein foods usually are lower in protein quality than most animal proteins because they lack significant amounts of various essential amino acids (Tufts University Medical School). But some disagree. Unfortunately, animal consumption offers real disadvantages too—the destruction of our health and our environment.
The animal industry does everything to make eating animals a part of our belief system. We grew up on slogans like “Everybody needs milk” and “Milk does a body good.” But because of advances in knowledge we now know animal products are not the panacea once believed. We know producing animal products is detrimental to our environment, us and our children. The CDC has identified a number of pollutants associated with the discharge of animal waste into rivers and lakes, and into the air. The use of antibiotics may create antibiotic-resistant pathogens: parasites, bacteria, and viruses may be spread.
The misconception, upheld by the animal industry and supported by the diet and medical industries, that animal protein is superior to plant protein, has certainly been a strong argument for the production and consumption of animals. Fortunately scientists are giving us different information now. Dr. McDougall brings us up to date in ‘Where Do You Get Your Protein.’ “Since plants are made up of structurally sound cells with enzymes and hormones, they are by nature rich sources of proteins. In fact, so rich are plants that they can meet the protein needs of the earth’s largest animals: elephants, hippopotami, giraffes, and cows. You would be correct to deduce that the protein needs of relatively small humans can easily be met by plants.”
At one time the common knowledge was animals were automatons; without feeling, without soul, without virtue; other than a living resource for human exploitation. From this we learn—animals have no rights! “A poll of Oxford students found that 85% supported animal testing and 65% thought the launch of Pro-Test a good idea.”
In the 1920’s the use of vitamins allowed farmers to raise poultry indoors and in higher densities. By the ’50’s the use of antibiotics and vaccines extended high density farming; sickness in animals could be delayed long enough to turn them into food. For poultry this may typically be 45 days, and pigs 6 months. The industry has grown to produce and kill 10 billion animals per year in the U.S. The animal production industry is huge, and destructive. “According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are currently 450,000 Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) in the United States. AFOs contain animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations in one combined land space. According to EPA, AFOs create more than 500 million tons of waste every year.” This dangerous waste exceeds that of the human population and there have been no processing plants for it.
Another line of justification for the CAFO’s is these facilities have succeeded in bringing the cost of animal flesh down to being affordable by the poor—though this may have mostly to do with the increased efficiency from forcing so many more animals into the same amount of area. Along this line, the mantra of the educated is commonly to support the science of GMO’s as their educators have convinced them this technology is to produce more food to feed the world. The opponent of this mind set says we have enough food now; we just can’t efficiently distribute it where it’s needed. “World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720(kcal) per person per day.” (WorldHunger.org 2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics)
Further justification for the factory farms includes economics. People are employed in the farming of animals, the production of crops to feed them, the production of medicines (more than half the antibiotics are used on animals in this country), the slaughtering, the storage, transportation and the wholesaling and retailing of the end products. But it’s inefficient and wasteful to cultivate animal flesh for human consumption. It requires about 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of flesh and the amount of water required to maintain this industry is staggering, and we face water shortages. This industry contributes significantly to deforestation, with deforestation contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. It is reported that deforestation, predominately for agriculture, occurs at a rate between 4,000 and 6,000 acres per hour. The facts tell us something in this regard: The production of animals degrades everything.
Some contend that the people working in this industry, especially in the slaughter process, are negatively impacted mentally and physically by association. But the stress from this industry affects everyone, suppliers as well as consumers and non consumers alike—in much the same way slavery adversely affected the slave trader, slave owner and the slave; even those not participating in that culture. It’s a low paying industry and attracts a lot of desperate people, particularly the newly immigrated, and it’s dangerous! Here we have not even scratched the surface on the subject of epidemic and pandemic threats such as avian flu, swine flu and other pathogens known to migrate the once perceived, now non-existent, species barrier. There are many dozens of diseases attributed to human contact with animals. Suffice it to say, another unnecessary side effect of the human predilection for animal consumption. According to CDC, Farms on which animals are intensively reared can cause adverse health reactions in farm workers. Workers may develop acute and chronic lung disease, musculoskeletal injuries, and may catch infections that transmit from animals to human-beings.’There are over 150 pathogens in manure that could impact human health. Many of these pathogens are concerning because they can cause severe diarrhea. Healthy people who are exposed to pathogens can generally recover quickly, but those who have weakened immune systems are at increased risk for severe illness or death.’ http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Docs/Understanding_CAFOs_NALBOH.pdf
Some of the larger countries are coming up to speed now. They will be able to far surpass the damage the U.S. has done to the environment and its inhabitants in a much shorter time. The China Feed Industry Association boasts a $50 billion a year animal feed industry which is predicted to surpass the U.S. this year. And they claim they are well positioned for expansion. In light of the problems in the world now, this should be a huge concern.
The notion that animals are here for us to use is supported by government, education, religion, retailing and of course—tradition and superstition. Our culture engages in the exploitation of animals for anything from science to pleasure and any use you can imagine in between. Advocates of the status-quo will tell you there is only a little cruelty and suffering in factory farms. To further this philosophy it is stated animals have always been confined, used, abused, beaten and eaten—it’s what they are here for. This was the same argument used by many to defend slavery.
Even though there are moral issues throughout this industry, to improve this situation the environmental argument may be best, but only in that as the environment continues to decline it will reach a point at which we will be forced to acknowledge our peril. It is the nature of our species to eventually reply, when pushed down far enough—usually near the bottom. When it becomes intolerable there will be a response from the masses—we can only hope it won’t be too late! Much like the global warming threat, nefariously called ‘hyperbole’ by many, we finally had to acknowledge that there really is something going on. Actually the animal industry is a major contributor to global warming. I have read that in California’s central valley the major pollutants in the air, contributing to the greenhouse problem and to breathing problems, come from animal wastes.
‘Aside from the possibility of lowering air quality in the areas around them, CAFOs also emit greenhouse gases, and therefore contribute to climate change. Globally, livestock operations are responsible for approximately 18% of greenhouse gas production and over 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (Massey & Ulmer, 2008). While carbon dioxide is often considered the primary greenhouse gas of concern, manure emits methane and nitrous oxide which are 23 and 300 times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, respectively. The EPA attributes manure management as the fourth leading source of nitrous oxide emissions and the fifth leading source of methane emissions (EPA, 2009)’ http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Docs/Understanding_CAFOs_NALBOH.pdf.
If we accept the evidence provided as true and important then the logical and virtuous step any human should take is to stop participating in the animal production process—if there is no demand there will be no supply. Based on the facts, it seems this industry is bad for everything it touches; except the bank accounts of those running the show. The animal industry, a prominent feature of our culture, contributes to our biggest problems. One of our most revered traditions may be one of our most damaging. To overcome such insidious habits, which destroy our home and our health, will most likely require a major cultural shift. Probably the best course of action is education. It will have to be education for the young though; those who have already inherited their culture and beliefs usually cannot change, not even in the face of contrary evidence. Just an ancient human characteristic that for the modern human—is a flaw!