If the human species wants a healthy ecosystem, so it can survive, we will need to change the way we get our food. Markets compel inefficient and dangerous production techniques, unhealthy consumption, and nonsensical allocation methods.
The Obvious: Animal Production & Economic Resources
Public policy discussions often generate questions about land and wildlife preservation, conservation, finding land on which to build, and land that could be used for public parks; one would think land was incredibly scarce for Americans. However, 80% of agricultural land in the US serves no other purpose than to grow food to feed livestock animals, which are raised on different land.[i] To offer perspective—the rest of the world uses about 30% of the earth’s land surface for livestock.[ii]
Less developed countries constantly struggle to figure out where it will obtain fresh water for its population, as if it is also scarce. Nonetheless, livestock animals are the number one consumers of water.[iii] A United Nations study entitled “Livestock's Long Shadow” explains that 2.3 billion people struggle, on a daily basis, to obtain their needed amount of water. Of these 2.3 billion people, 1.7 billion live under water scarcity conditions.[iv]
The ecological problem of livestock is more than just a water problem. Meat usually requires multiple production stages that other food does not. For its production, meat requires the feed to be grown and brought onto diesels, transported, feed mills to be run and filled, workers at the factory farm, transportation of animals to the slaughterhouse, workers risking their lives and mental stability at the slaughterhouse, scrapping of undesired parts of the animal, transportation of meat to processing plants, workers to process meat at the plant, transportation of meat to the grocery store, and refrigeration or freezing of the meat in the store. At each of these stages, resources are used through labor, transportation, heating, cooling, etc. Every factor requires energy for its heat, just like every truck.
The cost of producing a living creature and destroying it is paramount to other productive efforts in the economy. For example, one pound of cow meat requires 2,400 gallons of water for its total production. One pound of whole wheat flour, on the other hand, only requires about 180 gallons of water.[v]
Danielle Nierenburg, an agricultural issues researcher at the World Watch Institute, and Gowri Koneswara have said that overwhelming evidence proves the meat and dairy industry has a more harsh effect than any other industry on the environment, and they include air and land transportation in their research of environmental damages.[vi] The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations wrote (2006), “[T]he livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport.”[vii] In the US, about 80% of ammonia emissions are livestock derived.[viii] A single dairy cow “emits 19.3 pounds of volatile organic compounds per year, making dairies the largest source of the smog-making gas, surpassing trucks and passenger cars.”[ix]
American livestock animals generate 87,000 pounds of excrement per second; that is roughly 130 times more than all Americans![x] Three trillion pounds of this excrement is used to fertilize crops, causing run-off of bacteria, drugs, and diseases into waterways.[xi] Agricultural runoff is the number one source of pollution in our waterways.[xii]
Agricultural runoff flows through our mighty, Mississippi River, straight down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has made a “dead zone,” a place where most natural sea creatures can no longer survive, due to runoff and other pollution. A Princeton University study (2006) concluded that this dead zone could be reduced to “small or non-existent,” if the meat industry was curbed or halted altogether.[xiii]
Bob Torres spent an extensive amount of research and writing in The Political Economy of Animal Rights, in which he exhibits not only the factual and statistical horrors that occur in the cages of animals, but also on the factory floor for the workers in the factory farms. For readers more interested in investigating this topic, read Chapter 2: Chained Commodities of the book, specifically focusing on pages 45-56.
He easily demonstrates that the first industry in need of halting for workers' safety must be the meat industry. “Slaughterhouse work is routinely ranked among the most dangerous occupations, and illegal immigrants are over-represented among slaughterhouse workers.”[xiv] Torres offers multiple interviews with factory farm workers who have witnessed workers leaving maimed, with slit throats, and other shocking injuries that would only routinely occur in the meat industry.
The meat industry often intentionally plays off the insecurity of undocumented workers, knowing they cannot file a lawsuit, gain workers compensation, or be treated as humans on the issue.[xv] This, he compares to the similar lack of concern from the capitalist class for vivisection and animals tested in laboratories, where the oppressed can do absolutely nothing and never have their concerns acknowledged. Though alternative methods of accomplishing a task may exist—soy meat, or synthetic materials—a shareholder only seeks the cheapest method for her/him to increase profits. If that means disregarding lives, limbs, or psychological stability, they will, and they do.
An unstable psyche is also a common result of the slaughterhouse and every workplace where workers are forced to regularly kill other sentient creatures. There are countless news stories about violent slaughterhouse confrontations, but even workers in animal shelters that kill animals suffer symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Debra White studied this characteristic and wrote:
Shelter workers who have to euthanize animals as a regular part of their jobs suffer a wide range of distressing reactions, including grief, anger, nightmares and depression, according to a study I conducted with a fellow social worker . . . . “I have a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of crying… I've had breakdowns in the euthanasia room because I feel so helpless.”[xvi]
Whether knee-deep in blood and guts at a slaughterhouse, shoving hooks up the anuses of hogs to drag them to the next location to be quickly sliced up on the factory line, or in a shelter, injecting a puppy to end her/his life, the emotional implication is stressful and not healthy for the human psyche.
Will the Market Save Us?
As markets would have it, despite ecological devastations, labor violations, and inhumane cruelty, the United Nations warns, “people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.”[xvii]