Factory Farming: It’s impacting your health, animal welfare, and the environment. What can you do?
95% of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms.
(According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®)
That’s a shocking statistic, and yet not surprising considering that meat production and consumption worldwide is more than three times higher than it was 50 years ago according to a report released by the Worldwatch Institute in 2011.
According to this same report by the WorldWatch Institute, “Worldwide as of 2010, People in the developing world eat 32 kilograms of meat a year on average, compared to 80 kilograms per person in the industrial world.”
I’ll preface this post by stating that the purpose of this blog post is not to judge anyone for their eating choices or pressure anyone into adopting a plant-based only lifestyle. I personally choose to eat meat and I believe that there are many great health benefits from eating small portions of sustainably sourced and ethically raised meat. I believe that choosing to eat animal products or not is a personal choice. However, I do believe that many consumers of meat, especially in the U.S., are unaware of the gravitas of industrialized factory farming.
Helping to advocate for change in the food industry in our country is a passion of mine, and as a health coach, I believe it is also my duty to help spread education about topics such as factory farming and how it impacts your health. Factory farming not only affects the health of those who eat meat from these facilities, but it also negatively impacts our environment, has major ethical implications due to the horrific treatment of many of the animals, and affects small family farmers.
Human Health: Factory farming impacts human health in a multitude of ways.
The overcrowded, filthy conditions lead to an increase in disease and sickness among the animals, which contribute to more human infections and foodborne illnesses. There are massive amounts of antibiotics used on livestock at factory farms, in fact, worldwide about 80% of all antibiotics sold are used for livestock. (From the report “State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet” by the WorldWatch Institute). This overuse of antibiotics can lead to strains of bacteria that are resistant to drugs altogether. Even more disturbing is that according to the same report, “Seventy-five percent of the antibiotics used on livestock are not absorbed by the animals and are excreted in waste”. This waste then contaminates water sources and food crops, posing serious health issues for the public.
In addition to these health threats, the animal products from these factory farms are much lower quality than traditionally farmed/produced meat, eggs, and dairy. These animals have greater inflammation and toxin levels in their bodies due to their disease levels, and the nutrition level of the animal products coming from them is decreased as well. The genetic selection processes that chickens raised for poultry undergo for example lead to muscle tissue disorders such as “wooden breast” and “white striping”. These conditions not only cause pain for the chickens but according to a report by Compassion in World Farming, “Breast fillets affected by severe white striping have been found to contain up to 224% more fat and 9% less protein than normal breast meat.” (“Declining Nutritional Value of Factory Farmed Chicken”, CIWF)
Ethical Implications: The ethics of eating meat and animal products is a very controversial topic, full of nuances that I’m not here to get into in this post. As I said before, I personally chose to eat meat, but I believe that in order to be a responsible consumer of animal products, you should do your best to be a savvy and ethical shopper.
No matter where you stand on this issue, according to a survey by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA), “94% of Americans agree that animals raised for food deserve to live free from abuse and cruelty. Yet the majority of the nearly 10 billion land-based animals, plus countless more aquatic animals, farmed for food each year in the U.S. live in unacceptable conditions that do not align with consumers’ stated values.”
In the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, author Yuval Noah Harari talks about how the Industrial Revolution was largely a Second Agricultural Revolution, where plants and animals were mechanized to meet our human needs. Across the board, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress. “Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think often argue that such animals are really little different from machines, devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering. Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have complex sensory and emotional make-up. They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.” (Yuval Noah Harari, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, Pg. 343)
I think most people can agree that the cruelty with which most of the animals on factory farms are treated is appalling. And yet many of us, including myself, can easily fall into the “Out of sight, out of mind” category when it comes to choosing our food. There are hundreds of resources out there to educate yourself about what goes on at factory farms so that you don’t end up contributing to their profit. One easy to navigate resource that I recommend is the ASPCA’s website.
According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® website, these are the major sources of animal suffering on factory farms:
- Cages and overcrowding.
- Physical alterations like teeth-clipping or tail-docking performed without anesthetic
- Indoor confinement with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns
- Inability to engage in important natural behaviors, like laying eggs in nests or roosting at night
- Breeding for fast growth or high yields of meat, milk, and eggs that compromises animal health and welfare
- Illnesses and injuries left unnoticed or untreated, often due to an unmanageable ratio of animals to workers
- Reliance on antibiotics to compensate for stressful and unsanitary conditions
- Rough or abusive handling by workers, often due to a lack of training, frustration at poor working conditions, unreasonable demands by superiors or poor design of facilities
Environmental Impacts & Family Farmers: Factory farming takes a toll on global water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, contamination of water sources and other food crops, and affects the air quality in the surrounding rural communities. It also has deeply impacted America’s small family farms, mostly wiping them out.
According to a 2011 report by the Worldwatch Institute, “Raising livestock accounts for roughly 23 percent of all global water use in agriculture.” According to the ASPCA, “Industrial animal agriculture generates more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation combined and emits more than 400 types of toxic gas.” There is also the issue of the sheer amount of manure produced by factory farms. On small, diverse farms where both livestock and a variety of crops are grown, manure can be used to fertilize the soil without polluting the water. Factory farms, on the other hand, produce such a vast quantity of manure, that it exceeds the soil’s ability to incorporate it, thus leading to water and air pollution.
According to the ASPCA, “In 1950, there were 5.6 million farms raising 100 million farm animals. In 2017, there were 2 million farms raising 9.32 billion farm animals.” Yuval Noah Harari also talks about the diminishing numbers of small farmers in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, when he points out that today in the U.S., only 2% of the population makes a living from agriculture, and yet this 2% feeds the entire U.S. population and some of the rest of the world through factory farming. Many of the independent livestock farmers that remain are struggling to make ends meet. According to the Food & Water Watch Factory Farm Map website, “The tiny handful of companies that dominates each livestock sector exerts tremendous control over the prices that farmers receive, and these companies micromanage the day-to-day operations of many farms. The real price that farmers receive for livestock has trended steadily downward for the last two decades. Most farmers barely break even. In 2012, more than half of farmers lost money on their farming operations.”
On a brighter note, regenerative animal farming practices can help with carbon sequestration, soil regeneration, improved nutrient cycles, increased biodiversity, and income for smaller farms.
Regenerative Agriculture is defined by Regeneration International as, “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” Grass-fed and Pasture-raised beef can help to promote more carbon sequestration in the soil, thus minimizing the amount of carbon emissions that currently get absorbed by the oceans, trees, and plants. An article on the website Small Footprint Family about Grass-fed beef and climate change explains the way that carbon sequestration works. The grasslands take in carbon from the air, then the grass-fed animals eat, fertilize, and stomp the grasses into the ground. The carbon then decomposes into the soil, helping to feed the roots of the plants. New grass then grows, absorbing more carbon and creating more topsoil in an ongoing cycle.
What can you do? How can you be a more savvy consumer? The most important thing you can do as a consumer is to vote with your dollar.
Do your best to educate yourself about food labels and what they mean, read food labels carefully when shopping, and try to only support companies or products that advocate for better animal welfare and for regenerative farming practices. I’ve also listed a number of educational resources at the bottom of this post for further reading about animal welfare on factory farms, factory farming impacts on the environment, regenerative farming, soil regeneration, and food justice.
There are specific third-party certifications for animal products that you can look for as a consumer. These certifications all vary slightly, but they offer farm animals significantly better lives than those on conventional factory farms. If you would like more information about food label and animal welfare, you can check out the Animal Welfare Institute’s website.
The top three certifications for best animal welfare are the following:
Some other certifications/labels to look for that are not as good as the above certifications, but which still ensure better conditions than standard factory farming are listed below:
The other important thing you can do as a consumer is to consume less.
As I have said a few times in this post, I’m not advocating specifically for or against plant-based diets such as vegetarian and vegan in this post. I personally have followed a Paleo approach for years and I believe there are both nutritional and environmental benefits to eating traditionally grown sustainably farmed and ethically raised animal products. However, I also believe that if someone chooses not to eat meat due to personal, spiritual, ethical, or environmental reasons, that is completely valid and should be respected as well. For myself personally, the more research that I do into factory farming, the increases in meat consumption over the last 50 years, and environmental and health factors associated with eating excess meat…I find myself leaning towards a reduction in overall meat and animal product consumption.
One of my favorite functional medicine doctors, Dr. Mark Hyman, talks about a way of eating he calls the “Pegan” diet in his book “Food: What the heck should we eat?”. The Pegan diet name references both the popular Paleo and Vegan diets. Both of these popular diets advocate for an increase in whole, real foods, fresh fruits and veggies, healthy proteins, healthy fats, and a decrease in processed foods. The Pegan diet advocates for the following main things: lowering sugar consumption, eating mostly plants, cutting out processed foods and additives, eating healthy fats, avoiding dairy, thinking of meat and animal products as condiments, avoiding gluten, eating gluten-free grains sparingly, eating beans once in a while, and choosing only sustainably raised meat products. You can read more about it in Dr. Hyman’s book or on his website.