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.

Diets and the Environment: Part One

Growing up, I had a childhood friend who, through her own volition and love for animals of all kinds, adopted a vegan diet from a very early age. My young mind couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of not eating pizza and cupcakes at a birthday party, or chicken nuggets when a parent would relent and pick up McDonald’s for an after-school snack. I understood not wanting to hurt innocent animals. I had sympathized with Lisa Simpson after the family went to a petting zoo and later had lamb chops for dinner, a demonstration of hypocrisy that motivated Lisa to become a vegetarian. However, I didn’t draw the connection between the animals we ate as food and the animals we were supposed to think of as cute and friendly. Later on, in high school – with fad diets coming and going – friends of mine briefly embraced ranges of diets from vegetarian, to gluten-free, to no carbs, or whatever seemed most likely to allow them to lose weight the quickest. Even then, the thought of choosing my food for any reason other than taste or appetite seemed to be withholding my body of some pleasure that I felt I duly deserved every time I sat down for a meal.

Eventually, I tried a few diets here and there, with my main source of motivation being altering my physical appearance and receiving social validation from friends experimenting with the same thing. Yet, they never stuck. I would always be tempted and defeated by the smell of pizza or an after-school bake sale – probably because there was no real reason in my mind or tangible difference for why I was choosing to restrict my food intake. When you’re a little kid and not in control of your own diet, your parents try and indoctrinate you with the idea that fruits and vegetables are good for you; however, as we get older we lose sight of that idea as we look for more complex ways to keep our bodies healthy. Now, whenever I tell someone that I’m vegan they always show a perplexed expression and ask “what do you eat?” Or even more often, if I’m eating enough protein, which has always struck me as odd, considering no one ever thought to ask me about my health or nutrient levels when I was eating meat.

I had never seriously considered before how the food people bought was produced and transported to the grocery store and then to our plates. The whole process in the United States happens behind the scenes; factory farms are located in sparsely populated areas and the actual animals are often only transported to the slaughterhouse in the middle of the night, ensuring that people who aren’t looking won’t see what is happening. Once when I was 16, I was in Thailand, in a village called Mae Sariang, walking around with a group of people, being shown in the area. A chicken trailed behind as we walked through the damp and green environment, never falling far from the group. In the late morning, we went on a short hike and returned to the village eager to eat. We all sat and had fried rice for lunch. It wasn’t until later when we wandered down to play volleyball when I noticed the chicken no longer followed our footsteps, and I thought back to the lunch we had just had. The rice was chicken fried rice, which at the moment seemed secondary to the fact that hot fresh food was in front of us. However, once I realized that the friendly chicken was, in fact, our lunch chicken and that a member of our group was the one to prepare our food and therefore kill the chicken, my perspective on our simple lunch became more complex.

This wasn’t the watershed moment in my life that made me sympathize with the animals so much so as to abstain from eating meat. Actually, you might even argue that knowing the animal was raised in a friendly and loving environment would somehow make it more comforting to eat. But, it was the first time in my life I was directly confronted with the reality of how my food comes to be something I would actually eat, and as I started to investigate further the reality of food production in the United States I kept thinking back to that chicken and how wildly different its experience was from the chickens we raise for food in the US.

After 18 years of eating meat and animal products at whim, I was sitting alone in Amsterdam one night, while my friends slept, wondering how to pass the time, when I decided to watch a documentary on Netflix with a provocative title: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The documentary connected all the dots, plain and simple, of how animal agriculture plays a driving factor in exacerbating climate change and how inextricably linked our dietary choices are toward triggering some of the worst injustices towards our environment and collective well-being. Most people shy away from vegan documentaries or exposés claiming that they are sensationalist and play on people’s emotions. Even I don’t truly advocate watching traumatizing videos of the inside of a slaughterhouse. It is always graphic and explicitly compelling, but there are other valuable ways to internalize the injustices inflicted by the industrial animal agriculture system. I stayed up until the morning doing more research about what I had just been told in the film. To be quite honest with you, I was looking for every reason to contradict what the movie was trying to say because its core message was so unsettling. And because I really wanted to continue eating pizza and sushi, and most of the products my normal diet consisted of.

I had always perceived myself as someone who treated the environment well and did my best to reduce my ecological impact. I remember listening intently at an assembly in elementary school teaching us about taking short showers, turning the faucet off when we brush our teeth or nagging our parents to transition to energy efficient appliances. I happily participated in all of these activities and encouraged others to do the same. Yet, upon learning that (by conservative estimates) it takes 660 gallons of water on average to produce a single burger, I felt frustrated that the scale of the problem had been so obfuscated. Animal agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources in the United States. I could shower continuously for approximately two months and use 660 gallons of water, or I could eat a hamburger for dinner.

600 Trees Planted for Louisiana’s Coastal Wetlands

Lake Maurepas - Port Manchac Louisiana
Lake Maurepas – Port Manchac Louisiana

A football field has become a colloquial frame of reference for spatial comparisons both silly and serious. Unfortunately, on the serious end of those comparisons – Louisiana has been losing its coastal wetlands at an alarming rate; and estimates produced by the U.S. Geological Survey confirm the loss to be about a football field every hour over the last 30 years.

This semester I’m taking a course on environmental ethics which has played a big role in pointing me towards my major in environmental studies and hopefully, a career focused on environmentalism. This course has an elective service-learning component – a core requirement for all Tulane students, to complete two tiers of community service during their four years in New Orleans. There were multiple, wonderful community partnerships to choose from, but a friend of mine and I were really inspired by the mission of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) is a nonprofit organization that advocates for Louisiana’s coastal wetlands through science-based community action with their Habitat Restoration program. Wetlands are areas where the water level is at or above the top layer of soil, producing prime environments for diverse ecosystems teeming with wildlife, food, nutrients, and habitats for native species. The loss of Louisiana’s wetlands, which make up approximately 11 percent of the state, threatens more than just the species that live there, but also the prominent fishing industry, oil and gas industries.

There are multiple factors, some occurring naturally and others produced by the strain of densely populated societies, that are causing the accelerated erosion of coastal wetlands in Louisiana.  According to CRCL, Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier shorelines have lost more than 1 million acres of land due to human influences on the environment and natural processes. the three main causes are: reduced sediment flow, caused by freshwater diversion and blockages of the Mississippi river’s natural flow; subsidence, refers to the sinking of land; and continual rising sea levels.

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On this past Saturday, Nov. 4th, CRCL hosted an event in Lake Maurepas as part of their ‘Ten Thousand Trees for Louisiana’ initiative, where 60 volunteers, including my friend and myself, came together to plant 600 trees in a marshy tributary. The wetlands and their barrier islands serve as a line of defense against natural disasters, protecting vulnerable coastal communities from the harm of storms and flooding, an issue very pertinent in Louisiana. The trees planted serve a dual purpose by helping to keep the ecosystem alive while also protecting the environment from further erosion.

CRCL, in addition to the tree planting, hosts other wonderful events ranging from panels and talks on advocacy for the Gulf Coast to hands-on volunteer experiences in restoring parts of the coast. Working with them over the course of this semester has been such a wonderful opportunity to learn more about a serious environmental issue that I had never really heard about before coming to college in New Orleans.

Hopefully, the mission of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana resonates with you as much as it did with me! If you want to get involved or read more about the organization – click here!