The Meat Factory

by Sarah Newport

Friends of the Earth magazine, Summer 1998


So, you've decided to cut back on meat to lower your fat and cholesterol intake. Eating less meat may improve more than just your health, since meat production is a leading cause of environmental degradation. Much of the meat on the market today is produced in large-scale feedlots. On these farms, thousands of farm animals are crowded into individual pens in a warehouse where they are fed and watered by computer-controlled machines. These "factory farms" contribute to air and water degradation, harm rural communities and threaten the quality of our meat supply.

Livestock produces 230,000 pounds of excrement per second in the United States. "One 50,000 acre swine operation in southwest Utah, designed to produce 2.5 million hogs annually, has a potential waste output greater than the entire city of Los Angeles," commented Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), co-sponsor of a bill to reform confined-feeding operations. The waste produced is primarily sprayed as fertilizer onto surrounding fields, from which it pours into streams, lakes and rivers, harming fish and degrading water quality. In 1995, 35 million gallons of spilled animal waste killed 10 million fish in North Carolina. Factory farms also emit dangerous and noxious air pollutants, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into the atmosphere. They consume enormous quantities of water, depleting aquifers in some states, and use large amounts of fossil fuel for mechanized feeding and climate control.

The stench coming from factory farms is not all that rural communities must endure. Increasing concentration amongst livestock producers and processors has made small farmers unable to compete with their large counterparts. In addition, large factory farms cripple local economies. Although they promise tax revenue and new jobs, a 1994 University of Missouri study showed that for every 12,000 hogs produced, only 9 new jobs were created by factory farms and 28 farm jobs were displaced. The new jobs are often toxic, low-wage and have a high turn over rate. According to the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, "concentrated corporate producers further deplete the local economy of local dollars by buying most of their supplies out of town," and by funneling profits back to corporate headquarters. Family farmers, in contrast, continually recirculate their dollars back into the local economy by purchasing goods from local retailers and suppliers.

Factory-farmed meat is also more likely to carry dangerous bacteria than meat produced on smaller farms. Thousands of animals and birds raised in tight confinement provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To combat disease and promote animal growth, farmers are using more and more antibiotics on their animals. Fifty percent of all antibiotics manufactured in the U.S. go into animal feeds, which has led to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that can cause disease in humans. Animal products contaminated with bacteria such as e. coli, salmonella and campylobacter cause acute food-borne illnesses and in some cases death. According to the FDA, "as many as 9,000 Americans, mostly the very young and elderly, die each year, and millions more are sickened as a result of food-related illness." The majority of these illnesses are caused by contaminated animal products.

In addition, diets high in meat and other animal products can contribute to incidences of coronary heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and hypertension.

Americans love beef. McDonald's hamburgers are so popular that the Golden Arches have become an international symbol of American culture. Unfortunately, eating beef has grave consequences for the Earth and the global population.

Meat consumption represents a tremendous waste of precious food resources in a world where millions of people die each year due to malnutrition and starvation. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef. Approximately 70 percent of total grain produced in the U.S. (and 40 percent of world grain production) is fed to animals. If this grain was eaten directly by humans rather than converted to animal products, it could feed five times as many people.

Beef production is also a major cause of destruction of the world's rainforests. Government subsidies and the high prices paid for beef encourage ranchers to burn the forest to create new grazing land. The rainforest's fragile soil is destroyed by grazing within 1-2 years, forcing the ranchers to move to new areas and destroying thousands of species of plants and animals.

In some developing countries, farmers are raising beef for export rather than raising food for domestic consumption. This practice is occasionally financed by destructive programs of multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank. Cattle farming requires vast amounts of land and water, and siphons agricultural inputs from local food production to production of beef for export. ...

Finally, beef production is causing global desertification-the rapid degradation of marginal low-rainfall soil areas into desert. It is estimated that 35 percent of American grazing land has been severely decertified. Ironically, the U.S. government continues to subsidize harmful grazing practices on taxpayer-owned federal lands. About 75 percent of public land in the West is leased to cattle ranchers for "grazing fees" that are well below market costs. ...

So, next time you eat a burger, think of the Earth

Environment watch