ESSAY- Planet hogs: how factory meats hurt your world
One of the most stalwart defenders of factory farming in America is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and it's none too happy that the United Nations has concluded that the environment pays a heavy price for our addiction to meat.
Tamara McCann Thies, chief of environmental affairs at the association, admits that there may be room for improvement, but that the system is working. "If we want to grow food on this planet, there are going to be environmental effects," she says. "We do believe we're doing a good job environmentally, and there are lots of conservation measures we have put in place through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Our greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing as well."
But Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, says the UN report focuses our attention on the abundant resources expended in the interests of our carnivorous diet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has linked the existence of "dead zones," such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, to excessive nitrogen and phosphorous in agricultural runoff. These dead zones have resulted in the decimation of local fisheries and associated livelihoods. One source of nitrogen pollution is waste manure, often stored in large lagoons for treatment.
Thies points out that large cattle operations with more than 1,000 head are not allowed to discharge manure, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the possibility of using manure lagoons to generate electricity.
But the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Six Arguments for a Greener Diet argues that manure still escapes into streams and groundwater, sometimes leading to dramatic fish kills such as the 2005 spill into New York's Black River and the 1995 spill into North Carolina's New River Basin. Lester R. Brown's book Plan B 3.0 (W.W. Norton) reports that we currently feed livestock 37 percent of the grain produced on the planet. Of the pesticides used to help grow these crops, the USDA estimates that five percent will wash off farmland and enter the water supply. These practices ensure that our water supply will remain at risk of contamination from a number of sources.
Large-scale production of livestock also causes environmental damage that is more difficult to see and quantify. Partly because of how animals are raised in the factory system, antibiotics, pesticides and artificial hormones are becoming more prevalent in our food and water supply. A recent report commissioned by the Breast Cancer Fund, "The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls: What We Know, What We Need to Know" by Sandra Steingraber, considers early puberty to be at least in part an ecological disorder.
But this sobering scenario has its detractors. Alex Avery, the director of research for the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, says, "The current agricultural system is the most sustainable and safe in human history." He calls concerns about pesticides "overblown," saying, "Pesticides have greatly reduced the amount of fungal toxin contamination resulting from insect damage to crops, and the miniscule pesticide residues we're exposed to amount to no more than 1/10,000th of a daily non-toxic dose. You can't show any evidence that those tiny levels of pesticides cause sickness, but fungal toxins in bacteria do. That's the real food safety issue."
But consequences may result from the liberal use of antibiotics on livestock. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that antibiotics used for non-therapeutic purposes in livestock are roughly eight times the amount administered to people to fight disease. Diseases are often able to cross the species barrier, including Bird Flu and West Nile Virus.
Developing Meat Consciousness
Americans consume an average of 200 pounds of meat every year, according to the USDA, a number which has steadily risen since the 1970s. The Worldwatch Institute reports that Americans lead the world in meat consumption.
Most pay little attention to how those animals were raised. But Catherine Friend, author of The Compassionate Carnivore (Da Capo Press), argues that people can reform the unsustainable meat production system, both for their health and that of the animals. "I can't tell people what to eat," she says, "but I can suggest that they start paying attention to the fact that they're eating animals, and that the animals' lives are worthy of our consideration."
But eating little or no meat is also an option. According to Paul Shapiro, senior director for the Humane Society's Factory Farming Campaign, "The silver lining is that this is one of the easiest ways for individuals to reduce their environmental footprint. Whereas switching to a hybrid car or worrying about coal stacks may be beyond our daily means, choosing more plant-based meals is something where we can stand up for animals and the environment every time we sit down to eat."
Brian Colleran is a frequent contributor to E: The Environmental Magazine, a what-can-I-do bimonthly where this essay first appeared.