Plants Versus Profits

I live in the region of the United States where the techniques of industrial poultry production were first devised. Our landscape is littered with low buildings, each of which contains 20,000 young birds. In these buildings, dead and dying birds lie upon piles of fecal waste, side by side with live birds destined to be made into chicken sandwiches for McDonalds. The fumes from the accumulated urine are so thick that people wear masks to enter and many of the birds go blind. The birds are fed antibiotics in order to make them grow more quickly. They go to their deaths at six weeks of age, having never seen the sun or breathed fresh air.

The people also suffer. We cannot drink the water from our well, because it has been tainted by fertilizers, pesticides and the waste of the billions of birds per year who are raised and then killed by the poultry industry. The rivers, too, are polluted by these things and by the wastes which flow from the factories in which the birds are slaughtered and processed into convenience foods for affluent people.

The children in my county grow up in the shadows of the fields filled with acre upon acre of genetically modified maize and soya. Yet many do not have enough to eat. Their parents work on the farms or in the poultry factories, where the pay is low and disabling injuries are common. The farmers also struggle, because they have become bound to an industry which controls every aspect of their operations while giving them very little in return. Because they grow commodities for export rather than food for local consumption, they are helpless in the face of national and international changes in the markets for their produce.

Now, the corporations which created this miserable state of affairs plan to expand their operations into nations already struggling with hunger and environmental distress. They are aided in these aims by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and — shamefully — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Facing declining markets and increasing regulations in the United States and the European Union, the livestock industries aim to increase both consumption and production of meat in countries where people have traditionally eaten more healthy diets rich in plant-based foods. Like demand for tobacco and alcohol, demand for meat tends to increase as populations become more urban and more people work for wages rather than growing their own food. Demand for meat is influenced by a variety of factors, including corporate advertising and the widespread notion that the meat-based diet consumed by many Europeans and Americans is a symbol of high status.

By dumping underpriced products and touting them as healthy foods, the US livestock industries can virtually ensure that low-income consumers will replace more expensive locally produced foods with US products. Already, in China, increases in meat and milk consumption promoted by the US dairy industry have led to increases in the degenerative diseases that plague the United States. In Russia, where the US poultry industry dumps the ³dark meat² leg quarters shunned by domestic consumers, citizens have replaced traditional sources of cheap protein with chicken flesh that is often tainted with salmonella, hormones, and antibiotics.

Like demand for tobacco and alcohol, demand for meat can be dangerous. High consumption of meat and other animal-based foods is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and various cancers, including breast and colon cancer. Food and agriculture experts should be warning people against increased consumption of meat and working to promote sustainable cultivation of more traditional and healthy foods. Unfortunately, the combination of corporate influence and their own dietary preferences has led experts associated with FAO and other international agencies to talk instead about finding ways to meet expected increases in demand for meat in low-income nations. At the same time, powerful nations and their agents at the World Bank and IMF are working to force low-income nations to become more open to both agricultural imports and foreign investment in local agriculture projects.

Transnational corporations which control the production of meat and other animal-based foods are already taking advantage of this situation, by using hunger and projected demand for meat to justify new industrial animal agriculture operations in Africa, Asia, and regions of South America. This is the latest phase of agricultural colonialism.

Agricultural colonialism began in era of European imperialism, when lands previously devoted to the production of food for local and regional consumption were forcibly converted to the production of commodities for export. Areas which had previously been self-sufficient in food production became dependent on international markets in order to obtain cash to buy food.

In today¹s neo-colonial era, there have been three phases of agricultural colonialism. The first phase was the so-called ³green revolution,² when farmers were encouraged to use artificial pesticides, fertilizers, and ³improved² seeds. The second phase, which is ongoing, involves biotechnology and genetically engineered seeds. The third phase, which has just begun is the so-called ³livestock revolution,² which will involve moving the production of meat and other animal-based foods into low-income nations.

All of these phases of agricultural neo-colonialism have had two things in common: they have been promoted as ³hunger relief² and the true beneficiaries have been greedy corporations rather than hungry people. In each instance, the focus has been on the production of commodities for export, with both the control and the profits remaining in the hands of the wealthy providers of the capital and other inputs needed to produce those commodities.

The latest phase of agricultural colonialism may prove to be the most dangerous. In addition to further endangering and disempowering the people of impoverished nations, the expansion of industrial animal agriculture in those nations will have environmental consequences which will hurt everyone.

Animal agriculture already produces more water pollution than all other human activities combined. Now, the plan is to sharply increase worldwide meat production. Because industrial animal agriculture utilizes high levels of water, water resources will be increasingly depleted at the same time as they are increasingly polluted. At the same time, soil degradation associated with intensive grazing will increase desertification. All of this will hasten and worsen the emerging worldwide water crisis.

Biodiversity is also threatened by plans to increase meat production in the next two decades. It takes, on average, ten pounds of grain, maize, or soya to produce one pound of meat. More and more fields will be converted to the production of genetically engineered livestock feed, leaving less and less land for sustainable cultivation of diverse food crops for people.

This is an issue which demonstrates the truth of the hypothesis that social, economic, and environmental problems are interconnected. People, animals, and the environment will all be damaged so that corporations can earn profits by vending products which are known to cause disease in those who consume them.

The good news is that there is still time to stop this phase of agricultural colonialism. However, if we are to succeed, this issue must be given high priority in the agenda of the movement against trade globalization.

The World Food Summit (10-13 June, Rome) offers unique opportunities and challenges to those of us who seek to feed the world while preserving the planet. In theory, the world leaders gathered at the Summit could make agreements which would end all but the small proportion of hunger which is related to unavoidable circumstances. In reality, the interests of corporate agribusiness will probably ensure that false solutions such as more trade liberalization and more factory farming receive the most support… unless we take effective action. Global Hunger Alliance, an international coalition of organizations, has called for an international day of action on the day before the Summit opens and will be organizing demonstrations in Rome and in Washington, DC on that day. The Alliance has also asked individuals and organizations to contact their delegations in order to demand that the Summit result in genuine solutions such as debt relief, increased direct food aid, and more substantial support for sustainable cultivation of indigenous and locally-improved varieties of traditional food plants.

At the World Food Summit in June 2002, and at other international venues, we must speak forcefully of the dangers of industrial animal agriculture while at the same time promoting more effective, ethical, and environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and malnutrition. We must work for more equitable and efficient use of existing food resources and for enhanced international support for self-directed and sustainable cultivation of native and traditional food crops for local and regional consumption in impoverished nations. By taking these steps, we can help to feed the world while saving the planet.

[ About the author: Pattrice Le-Muire Jones coordinates the Global Hunger Alliance, an international coalition of environmental, social justice, and animal liberation organizations dedicated to effective, equitable, ethical, and environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and malnutrition. Global Hunger Alliance is online at ]

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