Diets and the Environment: Part Three

The waste created by the billions of farmed animals also creates an environmental and logistical problem. Methane is a noxious greenhouse gas, which scientists assert is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at causing global warming. It is produced naturally and anthropogenically; however, the anthropogenic sources – the largest being animal agriculture (37%) – are growing annually posing a great threat toward increasing global climate change. All things considered, raising livestock contributes to climate change more than 40% greater than the entire transportation sector.

Professor Dave Reay expresses that sentiment in terms that are simpler to grasp: “as our diets become more meat- and dairy- rich, so the hidden climate costs of our food begin to mount up”.  The waste from livestock operations is so voluminous that it can no longer be used sustainably as a fertilizer for the rest of the crops, necessitating another solution. Often this waste is untreated and creates toxic runoff that can contaminate local water supplies or crop fields. All farmed animals in the United States produce roughly 87,000 pounds of waste per second, with a polluting power 160 times that of raw municipal sewage, which goes entirely untreated and unregulated.

The problems don’t stop there. Considering pigs as an example, Iowa and North Carolina are the two states with the highest concentration of farmed pigs in the United States, with Iowa alone being home to over 22.6 million hogs and pigs in 2018. Iowa only has a population of 3.14 million people. North Carolina has approximately 2,217 hog farms with the number of hogs on the average operation increasing year after year. Hogs produce significantly more waste per capita than humans, which leaves Iowa and North Carolina (or any state producing pork) with a lot of pigs, and even more pig poop to manage. According to a 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, in one year alone, 5 counties in North Carolina produced 15.5 million tons of hog feces. A common solution employed by the factory farm is a “massive open-air cesspool storing the pigs’ waste – a stagnant pool containing their feces, urine, blood and other bodily fluids – often referred to as a “lagoon”. These harmful and toxic lagoons can cover up to 120,000 square feet and go as deep as 30 feet, not to mention a single factory farm can have multiple of these massive constructions. Once these lagoons are filled to capacity, the contents are liquified and sprayed over the fields and land owned by the farm.

The business model of the factory farm encourages maximum efficiency and profit at the expense of the animals and people living in or near their farms yet dealing with waste in that volume requires innovative solutions to manage that aren’t always the most cost-effective. The waste management procedures currently used by factory farms are temporary solutions at best and yield plenty of negative effects for those living nearby, which are usually lower-income, minority communities. The adverse health outcomes of the people who work at or even live near our factory farms are subject to investigation and litigation yet simultaneously swept under the rug as to continue the abhorrent practices normalized by industrial agriculture.

People are experiencing higher rates of cancer, chronic illness, and asthma in these counties and locales than counties without the presence of factory farming. Residents whose property neighbors a factory hog operation complain of strong odors that make it difficult to go outdoors and walk down the street especially in the warm months. Property values in these areas depreciate over time, leaving residents with economic burdens years down the line. These are all factors that aren’t taken into consideration when determining the price point of a rotisserie chicken or a pound of bacon, allowing large agribusiness companies to continue under the illusion of efficiency while shifting insurmountable burdens onto the public. These costs are lost in the industrialized system of animal agriculture, allowing people to eat meat without drawing the connection to where that animal was raised, the environment it was raised on, and the people who live close enough to see it all transpire.

The dispersion of food and food accessibility in the United States is rightfully subject to criticism, where lower-income communities don’t have access to the same food resources are high-income communities, often without a local grocery store and relying on convenience and corner stores to sustain and nourish their families. Often these types of food retailers carry a small section of produce if at all for a significantly marked-up price, limiting the choice between affordable foods and healthy foods. Historical patterns of residential segregation, with economically-privileged groups moving from the inner-city to the suburbs, lay the groundwork for the current state of urban development that has left low-income and minority communities without the essential infrastructure to maintain a healthy diet. Meat and dairy have become readily available at extremely low costs, which has made animal protein a source of nutrition that is no longer reserved for just the wealthy; however, the prices and availability of fresh produce has not caught up, making abrupt dietary changes a choice that not all can adopt. Being vegan without advocating for wider availability of plant-based options is a presumptuous position that leaves a large portion of the population out of the conversation on healthy nutrition and its relationship to the environment. There’s a widespread idea that veganism is an inaccessible diet and only appeals to those with the time and money to purchase foods from high-end grocery stores. However, the reality of inaccessibility of “vegan” food actually highlights flaws in the infrastructure of food distribution in general.

Going out to eat at a nice restaurant or buying your weeks’ worth of groceries at a store requires us to make choices. A lot of well-intentioned people will say something such as, “well the hamburger is going to get eaten anyway”, to communicate the idea that because one individual’s choice to not eat animal products won’t be the current that changes the tides of the system, they may as well continue to eat meat. However, considering the huge portion of meat consumption American’s represent, it would be equally naive to assume that a shift in the average American’s diet could translate to a large shift in our food production practices.

In the past I’ve made my food choices based on my personal preferences or willingness to spend on dining out; however, now my choices are dictated by something larger than myself. Changing your lifestyle, particularly centered around something we all do three times a day, is inherently going to be difficult. However, if you’re truly motivated about it change can manifest in myriad forms. Change doesn’t come from 100 people being 100% vegan 100% of the time; it comes from the potential of 100,000 people considering the impact of their daily food intake. For me change looked like telling myself that I could continue to eat meat in the coming months as I tried to phase myself out of my normal eating patterns in favor of healthier more environmentally sound choices, yet once the decision was made in my mind, the thought of eating meat stopped appealing to me. For others, change can be switching out a hamburger for a veggie burger every once in a while.

Of course, turning down a freshly baked cookie because it was made with eggs or butter is never fun, but I’ve learned to make a fantastic chocolate chip cookie that doesn’t put me at odds with my values.


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