The Problem with Factory Farms | Claire Suddath | 04/27/10

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If you eat meat, the odds are high that you've enjoyed a meal made from an animal raised on a factory farm (also known as a CAFO). According to the USDA, 2% of U.S. livestock facilities raise an estimated 40% of all farm animals. This means that pigs, chickens and cows are concentrated in a small number of very large farms. But even if you're a vegetarian, the health and environmental repercussions of these facilities may affect you. In his book Animal Factory, journalist David Kirby explores the problems of factory farms, from untreated animal waste to polluted waterways. Kirby talks to TIME about large-scale industrial farming, the lack of government oversight and the terrible fate of a North Carolina river.

What exactly is a factory farm?
The industrial model for animal food production first started with the poultry industry. In the 1930s and '40s, large companies got into the farming business. The companies hire farmers to grow the animals for them. The farmers typically don't own the animals -- the companies do. It's almost like a sharecropping system. The company tells them exactly how to build the farm, what to grow and what to feed. They manage everything right down to what temperature the barn should be and what day the animals are going to be picked up for slaughter. The farmer can't even eat his or her own animals. People who grow chickens for Perdue in Maryland have to go down to the market and buy Perdue at the store.

We collectively refer to these facilities as factory farms, but that's not an official name. The government designation is CAFO, which stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Basically, it's any farm that has 1,000 animal units or more. A beef cow is an animal unit. These animals are kept in pens their entire lives. They're never outside. They never breathe fresh air. They never see the sun.

What are the health and environmental hazards of CAFOs?
For one, you're often no longer feeding animals what they're genetically designed to eat. CAFO cows eat a diet of milled grains, corn and soybeans, when they are supposed to eat grass. The food isn't natural because they very often put growth hormones and antibiotics in it. That becomes a problem when you put that manure on the ground.

And the fact that there are thousands of animals packed into one farm is also a problem.
Oh, definitely. There are simply too many animals in too small of a place. In a traditional farm, a sustainable farm, you grow both crops and animals. There is a pasture, and you have a certain number of animals per acre. But when you have 2,000 cows per acre instead of two, you have a problem. You can't fit them in a pasture -- you fit them in a building. You can't grow enough crops to feed them -- you have to ship in their feed. You don't have enough land to absorb their waste. It has nowhere to go.

So what happens to it?
The manure is liquefied. It gets flushed out into an open lagoon, where it is stored until farmers can use it on what few crops they do grow. There's just so much of it, though. I've seen it sprayed into waterways and creeks. These lagoons filled with waste have been known to seep, leak, rupture and overtop. This stuff is untreated, by the way. We would never allow big, open cesspools of untreated human waste to just sit out on the ground near people's homes and schools. And yet because it's agriculture, the rules are different.

You write at length about North Carolina's Neuse River. What happened there?
Hundreds of massive pig farms came into North Carolina in the 1990s. In Animal Factory, I tell the story of Rick Dove, a former Marine who retired and bought a fishing boat. One day he noticed the fish were dying in really weird ways. First there were the algae blooms. Algae creates oxygen during the day through photosynthesis and expels carbon dioxide at night. When that happens, there's literally no oxygen in the water. Everything comes crawling up to the shore in the shallowest part of the river, trying to pump water through their gills. By the morning, they're all dead. Everything -- shrimp, crab, little fish called menhaden, eels, bass. People call it a "fish jubilee," 'cause they can just wade into the river and pick up free food.

Soon after this started happening, Rick Dove noticed the menhaden fish were developing round red circles on their flanks. They'd go into what was called a "death spiral." They just start swimming into little circles and just die. Nobody knew what was causing this. Pretty soon after that, the fishermen, including Rick and his son, noticed they were getting round red sores on their skin in the parts that touched the water. Then they'd get very disoriented. Fishermen would forget where they lived or where they'd docked their boats. Rick started to do some research. One day he read in a science magazine about pfiesteria, this very odd plankton that emits toxins that stun a fish so it can suck the fish's blood. That's what the lesions were. But the toxin also gets in the air, and that's why fishermen were getting disoriented.

Rick wanted to know the source of this problem, so he went up in an airplane. That's how I open Animal Factory, with him looking down at these massive pig farms. Sometimes you can even see the waste runoff going directly going into the water. Other times they're out there spraying night and day because nobody is watching them. You can't see this from the road. There are very few inspectors, and they're not going to go out there and monitor everyone.

Read the whole story here.


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As progressives respond to serious discussions on factory farming, becoming locavores, purchasing only cruelty-free cosmetics, fair trade, global hunger and global warming, conservatives act as if they've never encountered a vegetarian before!

It's already common knowledge that the Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) teach nonviolence towards humans and animals alike -- to the point of not eating them. And this is a serious point of contention between the Eastern religions and the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

As far as everyday ethics are concerned, there are no morally relevant differences between humans and other animals. Respect for animal life means respect for human life!

In a 1979 essay entitled "Abortion and the Language of Unconsciousness," Ravindra-svarupa dasa (Dr. William Deadwyler) explains:

"A conscious person will not kill even animals (much less very young humans) for his pleasure or convenience. Certainly the unconsciousness and brutality that allows us to erect factories of death for animals lay the groundwork for our treating humans in the same way."

Again: conservatives act as if they've never encountered a vegetarian before, even though vegetarianism has attracted some of the greatest minds in history.

In the Table of Contents to Rynn Berry's 1993 book, Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes: Lives & Lore from Buddha to the Beatles, Pythagoras is described as an ancient Greek religious teacher. Gautama the Buddha is similarly described as an ancient Indian savant and religious teacher. Mahavira is described as the historical founder of the world's oldest vegetarian religion---the Jains of India. Plato (and Socrates) are described as Pythagorean philosophers who are the founders of the Western philosophical tradition. Plutarch is described as an ancient essayist and biographer, famous for his Lives of notable Greeks and Romans.

Leonardo da Vinci is described as an "Italian Renaissance man; Leonardo is one of Western Civilization's greatest geniuses." Percy Shelley is described as a "scientist, classicist, aesthete, Shelley was probably the most gifted English Romantic poet." Leo Tolstoy: "Nineteenth century Russian author, Tolstoy is considered to be the world's greatest novelist." Annie Besant: "Nineteenth century English social reformer and spiritual once a feminist, a labor leader, a theosophist, a freethinker, a devoted mother and a founder of the planned parenthood movement. She is one of the most remarkable women of modern times."

Mohandas Gandhi: "Indian civic and spiritual leader; inventor of the hunger strike; architect of Indian independence; father of modern India." George Bernard Shaw: "Celebrated wit; peerless music and drama critic; essayist and dramatist of genius." Bronson Alcott: "American transcendentalist philosopher; father of Louisa May Alcott; founder of the first vegetarian commune, Fruitlands." Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: "World-class surgeon, pioneering nutritionist, and food inventor extraordinaire. Kellogg invented peanut butter, flaked cereals, and the first meat substitutes made from nuts and grains."

Henry Salt: "Venerable figure in the vegetarian movement; author of such vegetarian classics as Seventy Years Among the Savages, and Animal Rights." Frances Moore Lappe: "Author of Diet for a Small Planet, Lappe's two million copy bestseller put vegetarianism on the map, and awakened Westerners to the nutritional and economic benefits of a vegetarian diet." Isaac Bashevis Singer and Malcolm Muggeridge are described as the first major literary figures in the West to turn vegetarian since Tolstoy. Brigid Brophy: "Noted for her formidable intellect, Brigid Brophy is an English novelist, biographer, and critic of the first rank. She is the first major woman novelist to become a vegetarian."

Ethical considerations influenced Benjamin Franklin, who became a vegetarian at age sixteen. Franklin noted "greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension." In his autobiographical writings, he called flesh-eating "unprovoked murder."

The poet Percy Shelley was a committed vegetarian. In his essay, "A Vindication of Natural Diet," he wrote, "Let the advocate of animal food...tear a living lamb with his teeth and, plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood...Then, and only then only, would he be consistent."

Shelley's interest in vegetarianism began when he was a student at Oxford, and he and his wife Harriet took up the diet soon after their marriage. In a letter dated March 14, 1812, his wife wrote to a friend, "We have forsworn meat and adopted the Pythagorean system."

Shelley, in his poem "Queen Mab," described a world where humans do not kill animals for food:

" longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death disease and crime."

"It is necessary to correct the error that vegetarianism has made us weak in mind, or passive or inert in action," wrote Mohandas Gandhi. "I do not regard flesh-food as necessary at any stage." Gandhi wrote several books in which he discussed vegetarianism. His own daily diet included wheat sprouts, almond paste, greens, lemons, and honey. He founded Tolstoy Farm, a community based on vegetarian principles.

In his Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, Gandhi wrote, "I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species. We err in copying the lower animal world if we are superior to it...I do feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants."

"If you could feel or see the suffering, you wouldn't think twice. Give back life. Don't eat meat."

---actress Kim Basinger

Describing his reaction to a visit to a slaughterhouse, Canadian tennis champion Peter Burwash wrote in A Vegetarian Primer: "I'm no shrinking violet. I played hockey until half of my teeth were knocked down my throat. And I'm extremely competitive on a tennis court...But that experience at the slaughterhouse overwhelmed me. When I walked out of there, I knew all the physiological, economic, and ecological arguments supporting vegetarianism, but it was firsthand experience of man's cruelty to animals that laid the real groundwork for my commitment to vegetarianism."

"...the whole point of life is to harmonize with everything, every aspect of creation. That means down to not killing the flies, eating the meat, killing people or chopping the trees down."

---George Harrison

Kim Bartlett of Animal People in Clinton, WA, similarly writes:

"Something to think about: We believe that the Golden Rule applies to animals, too. We don't accept the prevailing notion that 'people come first' or that 'people are more important than animals.' Animals feel pain and suffer just as we do, and it is almost always humans making animals suffer and not the other way around. Yet in spite of how cruelly people behave towards animals -- not to mention human cruelty to other humans -- we are supposed to believe that humans are superior to other animals. If people want to fancy themselves as being of greater moral worth than the other creatures on this earth, we should begin behaving better than they do, and not worse. Let's start treating everyone as we would like to be treated ourselves."

Food expert Frances Moore Lappe, author of the bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, once said in a television interview that we should look at a piece of steak as if it were a Cadillac. "What I mean," she explained, "is that we in America are hooked on gas-guzzling automobiles because of the illusion of cheap petroleum. Likewise, we got hooked on a grain-fed, meat-centered diet because of the illusion of cheap grain."

The process of using grain to produce meat is incredibly wasteful: the USDA's Economic Research Service shows that we receive only one pound of beef for each sixteen pounds of grain. In his book Proteins: Their Chemistry and Politics, Dr. Aaron Altschul notes that in terms of calorie units per acre, a diet of grains, vegetables, and beans will support twenty times as many people than a meat-centered diet.

As it stands now, about half of the harvested acreage in America and in a number of European, African, and Asian countries is used to feed animals. If the earth's arable land were used primarily for the production of vegetarian foods, the planet could easily support a human population of twenty billion or larger.

Facts and points such as these have led food experts to point out that the world hunger problem is largely illusory. The Global Hunger Alliance writes: "Most hunger deaths are due to chronic malnutrition caused by inequitable distribution and inefficient use of existing food resources. At the same time, wasteful agricultural practices, such as the intensive livestock operations known as factory farming, are rapidly polluting and depleting the natural resources upon which all life depends. Trying to produce more foods by these methods would lead only to more water pollution, more soil degradation, and, ultimately, more hunger."

A report submitted to the United Nations World Food Conference concurs: "The overconsumption of meat by the rich means hunger for the poor. This wasteful agriculture must be changed--by the suppression of feedlots where beef are fattened on grains, and even a massive reduction of beef cattle."

"A diet that can lead to heart attacks, cancer, and numerous other diseases cannot be a natural diet," writes Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983). "A diet that pillages our resources of land, water, forests, and energy cannot be a natural diet. A diet that causes the unnecessary suffering and death of billions of animals each year cannot be a natural diet."

I understand there are conservative Christians who fear vegetarianism...which is kind of like being afraid of nonsmoking, nondrinking, or recycling. Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pointed out that 220 million Americans were eating enough food (largely because of the high consumption of grain fed to livestock) to feed over one billion people in the poorer countries.

A pamphlet put out by Compassion Over Killing says raising animals for food is one of the leading causes of both pollution and resource depletion today. According to a recent United Nations report, Livestock's Long Shadow, raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals for food causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks and other forms of transportation combined. Researchers from the University of Chicago similarly concluded that a vegetarian diet is the most energy efficient, and the average American does more to reduce global warming emissions by not eating animal products than by switching to a hybrid car.

"Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation."

---Union Nations' Food and Agriculture Association

70% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

Over 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow grain for livestock. (Greenpeace)

It takes nearly one gallon of fossil fuel and 5,200 gallons of water to produce just one pound of conventionally fed beef. (Mother Jones)

Farmed animals produce an estimated 1.4 billion tons of fecal waste each year in the U.S. Much of this untreated waste pollutes the land and water.

According to Dr. Richard Schwartz: the number of animals killed for food in the United States is 70 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds.

“If anyone wants to save the planet,” says Paul McCartney in an interview with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from 2001, “all they have to do is stop eating meat. That’s the single most important thing you could do. It’s staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty. Let’s do it! Linda was right. Going veggie is the single best idea for the new century.”


Robert, on the American Spectator blog, commented:

"While no one is going to support cruelty to animals, especially when unnecessary, history shows over, and over, and over, and over that those who say they want to treat animals like people (including recognizing rights with them) really have an agenda of treating people like animals."

Killing animals for food, clothing, "sport," etc. IS unnecessary. And I beg to differ with your assertion. History shows the opposite of what you're saying: cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to human beings.

"Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them," said Leonardo da Vinci. "We live by the death of others. We are burial places! I have since an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men will look upon the murder of animals as they look upon the murder of man."

Linnaeus, who introduced binomial nomenclature (naming plants and animals according to their physical structure) wrote: "Man's structure, external and internal, compared with that of other animals shows that fruit and succulent vegetables constitute his natural food."

Predators exist in the wild, but that does not imply man must automatically imitate them. Cannibalism and rape also occur in nature. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his book In the South Seas, noted there was no difference between the "civilized" Europeans and the "savages" of the Cannibal Islands.

"We consume the carcasses of creatures with like appetites, passions, and organs as our own. We feed on babes, though not our own, and fill the slaughterhouses daily with screams of pain and fear."

Studies indicate flesh-eaters have less endurance than do vegetarians, while vegetarians have two to three times greater stamina and recover five times more quickly from exhaustion. Most kinds of cancer, as well as heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, arthritis, gallstones and gallbladder disease are all preventable and treatable on a vegetarian diet.

In a letter to a friend on the subject of vegetarianism, Albert Einstein wrote, "besides agreeing with your aims for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind."

U Nu, the former Prime Minister of Burma, made a similar observation: "World peace, or any other kind of peace, depends greatly on the attitude of the mind. Vegetarianism can bring about the right mental attitude for holds forth a better way of life, which, if practiced universally, can lead to a better, more just, and more peaceful community of nations."

According to Count Leo Tolstoy, "A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism."

"Who loves this terrible thing called war?" asked Isadora Duncan. "Probably the meat-eaters, having killed, feel the need to kill...The butcher with his bloody apron incites bloodshed, murder. Why not? From cutting the throat of a young calf to cutting the throats of our brothers and sisters is but a step. While we ourselves are living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal conditions on the earth?"

"I personally believe," wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer, "that as long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a' la Hitler and concentration camps a' la Stalin--all such deeds are done in the name of 'social justice.' There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is."

In a 1979 essay entitled "Abortion and the Language of the Unconscious," Ravindra-svarupa dasa (Dr. William Deadwyler) wrote:

"A conscious person will not kill even animals (much less very young humans) for his pleasure or convenience. Certainly the unconsciousness and brutality that allows us to erect factories of death for animals lay the groundwork for our treating humans in the same way."

Author John Robbins writes in his Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987):

"The way we treat animals is indicative of the way we treat our fellow humans. One Soviet study, published in Ogonyok, found that over 87% of a group of violent criminals has, as children, burned, hanged, or stabbed domestic animals. In our own country, a major study by Dr. Stephen Kellert of Yale University found that children who abuse animals have a much higher likelihood of becoming violent criminals."

A 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) reported that children convicted of animal abuse are five times more likely to commit violence against other humans than are their peers, and four times more likely to be involved in acts against property.

Russell Weston Jr., tortured and killed 12 cats: burned and cut off their tails, paws, ears; poured toxic chemicals in their eyes to blind them; forced them to ingest poison, hung them from trees (the noose loose enough to create a slow and painful death.) Later killed two officers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

Jeffery Dahmer staked cats to trees and decapitated dogs. Later he dissected boys, and kept their body parts in the refrigerator. Murdered seventeen men.

Kip Kinkle shot 25 classmates and killed several in Springfield, Oregon. He killed his father and mother. Said he blew up a cow once. Set a live cat on fire and dragged the innocent creature through the main street of town. Classmates rated him as "Most Likely to Start World War Three."

As a boy, Albert De Salvo, the "Boston Strangler," placed a dog and cat in a crate with a partition between them. After starving the animals for days, he removed the partition to watch them kill each other. He raped and killed 13 women by strangulation. He often posed bodies in a shocking manner after their murders.

Richard Allen Davis set numerous cats on fire. He killed all of Polly Klaas' animals before abducting and murdering Polly Klaas, aged 12, from her bedroom.

After 16-year-old Luke Woodham mortally stabbed his mother, killed 2 classmates and shot seven others, he confessed to bludgeoning his dog Sparkle with baseball bats and pouring liquid fuel down her throat and to set fire to her neck. "I made my first kill today," he wrote in his court-subpoenaed journal. "It was a loved one...I'll never forget the howl she made. It sounded almost human." In June 1998, Woodham was found guilty of 3 murders and 7 counts of aggravated assault. He was sentenced to 3 life sentences and an additional 20 years for each assault.

Theodore Robert Bundy, executed in 1989 for at least 50 murders, was forced to witness a grandfather who tortured animals. Bundy later heaped graves with animal bones.

David Berkowitz, "Son of Sam," poisoned his mother's parakeet out of jealousy. He later shot 13 young men and women. 6 people died and at least 2 suffered permanent disabilities.

Keith Hunter Jesperson, "Happy Face Killer," bashed gopher heads and beat, strangled and shot stray cats and dogs. He is known to have strangled 8 women. He said: "You're actually squeezing the life out of these animals...Choking a human being or a cat--it's the same feeling...I'm the very end result of what happens when somebody kills an animal at an early age."

Carroll Edward Cole, executed in 1985 for an alleged 35 murders and reputed to be one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history, confessed that his first act of violence was to strangle a puppy under the porch of his house.

Robert Alton Harris murdered two 16-year-old boys, doused a neighbor with lighter fluid and tossed matches at him. His initial run-in with police was for killing neighborhood cats.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, which launched the modern day environmental movement, wrote: "Until we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is whether its victim is human or animal we cannot expect things to be much better in this world. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature. By every act that glorifies or even tolerates such moronic delight in killing we set back the progress of humanity."

In a December 1990 letter to Eric Mills of Action For Animals, vegan labor leader Cesar Chavez similarly observed:

"Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cockfighting, bullfighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves."

Mother Teresa, honored for her work amongst the poor with the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote in 1992 to Marlene Ryan, a former member of the National Alliance for Animals. Her letter reads:

"I am praying for you that God’s blessing may be with you in all that you are doing to create concern for the animals which are often subjected to much cruelty. They, too, are created by the same loving Hand of God which created us. As we humans are gifted with intelligence which the animals lack, it is our duty to protect them and to promote their well being.

"We also owe it to them as they serve us with such wonderful docility and loyalty.

"A person who shows cruelty to these creatures cannot be kind to other humans also.

"Let us do all we can to become instruments of peace—where we are—the true peace that comes from loving and caring and respecting each person as a child of God—my brother—my sister."

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