Diets and the Environment: Part Two

The animal agriculture industry represents a lot of ethical issues, from animal welfare to climate change and resource depletion, to public health, to environmental justice. Before I was sure I even believed the magnitude of what was beginning to unravel before me, I was certain that I couldn’t continue to pretend to be outraged at the fate of our environment due to human impact but consciously be supporting an industry so greatly contributing to its degradation. Short showers are still important and so is limiting your immediate water usage, but the drain on resources that our food choices contribute to is equally if not more important. It’s like the plastic straw paradox. People will happily support an initiative to ban plastic straws and encourage their friends, Facebook followers, companies, and local governments to abstain from using plastic straws to save the oceans and protect marine life, yet they won’t stop eating fish to save the oceans and protect marine life.

Fruits and vegetables were easier to grasp. I understood the concept of picking apples or berries and then packaging them for human consumption. (I also just want to add that there are of course certain plants and vegetables that require an unsustainable drain of resources, and that requires attention too, but the volume of meat consumption in the United States is so disproportionate with the rest of the world that factory farming and animal agriculture are an important place to start.) What was more abstract was the process of turning a pig into bacon or a cow into a burger.

Packaged in clear cling wrap, ready to be cooked, the chicken we buy at a store leaves almost no trace of where it comes from or how it was produced. The other day, my roommate came home from Costco, raving about the deal she had just scored – a full rotisserie chicken for $4.99. For her the decision was simple, almost reflexive; cheap poultry was available, so she purchased it because she is benefitted by having access to cheap animal protein. But what that price tag fails to communicate is the negative externalities someone or something must have suffered to get it there in the first place. We’re all familiar with the expression “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, well I say there’s no such thing as a $4.99 chicken.

What are the hidden costs of raising a chicken? The immense amount of arable land and natural resources needed to cultivate livestock and produce meat for human consumption is something that goes gravely unnoticed. It’s something I never even considered until the information was made plainly clear. Cows natural diet is acquired by grazing on grasslands and eating the plants and shrubs; however, cattle farmers have discovered that transitioning cows to eat grains and corn allows them to grow much bigger in a shorter time frame, ignoring the digestion and intestinal problems created by forcing animals off of their natural diets. Nearly 40% of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock rather than people, in the United States it’s over half.

What could 40% of the world grain stocks do to help the chronically hungry and malnourished? David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, suggests an estimate of 800 million people that could be nourished if the grain currently devoted to feeding livestock were redistributed to feed people directly. I’m not arguing that we should all start solely consuming grains and subsist off rice and beans. But it’s worth noting how at a time when the world’s population of undernourished and hungry people is growing steadily, we continue to support and invest in a grossly inequitable distribution of resources.

The factory farm system has learned how to feed and raise their animals to grow them as big as they can as quickly as they can. This has caused farming animals to evolve into a very unnatural process, by restricting the animals from engaging in their natural behaviors to feeding the animals large amounts of food outside of their natural diets, creating health problems for the animals that are routinely ignored. Studies indicate that a combination of poor genetics, lack of movement, and poor nutrition leave 10 to 40% of pigs “structurally unsound”, referring to bowed legs, pigeon toes, and buckling at the knees. Factory farming has become so pervasive that it has even altered the genetics of the species we know and eat.

Chickens are a prime example. In the 1940s the USDA was interested in breeding a chicken that could grow the most breast meat with the least feed. They developed a specifically bred chicken and began to manipulate its environment to maximize growth and minimize feed requirements which led to the development of two distinct types of chickens, ones raised for eggs and ones raised for meat. Chickens have been genetically and behaviorally engineered to grow larger than nature intended in far less time. The chickens purchased by KFC, which is responsible for the killing of 850 million birds annually, are almost always killed at 39 days old.

For perspective, the average lifespan of a ‘backyard’ chicken is five to eight years. The short lives the vast majority of chickens are allowed to live is filled with chronic pain and discomfort due to their unnatural growth trajectories.

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