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
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