I’m standing outside my hippie dad’s Oregon log cabin, seven years old, hand on jutting hip. I’d been playing in the garden, sniffing Dad’s prize roses, daydreaming. Now it was harvest time.
Dad carried an axe in one hand and an Araucana rooster in another, a sock over its head to calm it. He placed the squawking bird down on a stump and, with one smack, struck off its head. The headless chicken flopped around, blood sputtering. I watched, enthralled and revolted in equal measure.
I decided not to eat our chickens. “It’s so much healthier than store-bought chicken,” my dad pleaded with me. “These birds had good lives, and we know what they ate.” Still I refused. Sure, I wanted meat — but only from a package.
Fast-forward 30 years. I had been an on-again, off-again vegetarian since my teen years, but mostly I just ate lower on the food chain, aware that producing meat required more land, water, and energy, and created more pollution than grain or veggies alone
But it took a viral video last year of fuzzy little chicks getting ground alive — standard industry practice for some 200 million male chicks annually — to shock me into action. I hit the research stacks, reading books such as 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, as well as scientific studies, NGO reports, and government stats.
Saturday-morning cartoons often show happy pigs wallowing in mud, chickens pecking the ground, and cows grazing on grass. And for the past 10,000 years or so, this was an accurate picture of animal husbandry, a practice that was largely sustainable. Today, however, some 40 percent of the world’s food animals — and the vast majority of America’s nine billion food animals — are raised under conditions where chick-grinding is, well, run of the mill.
“Animals have been taken off the landscape and put in buildings,” explains Nicolette Hahn Niman, the author of Righteous Porkchop and a former litigator for the Waterkeeper Alliance on a case against Smithfield, the nation’s largest pork producer. “Automated machinery provides feed and water, which is often laced with slaughterhouse wastes and antibiotics. Most breeding sows and egg-laying hens are kept in cramped metal cages. Any beneficial impacts that animals have on the landscape no longer occur. They’re taking away a source of fertility to the land, and creating a waste problem.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. livestock produce some 500 million tons of manure each year. Once, that manure would have gone back into the land as fertilizer. On factory farms — also known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — the animal waste is a pollution problem.
Pig CAFOs, for example, include huge holding tanks (which can overflow or rupture) of liquefied excrement. Some farms inject this raw sewage into the ground, or spray it on agricultural fields. Workers who have fallen into manure lagoons quickly die from hydrogen-sulfide poisoning; aquatic organisms die in the rivers the manure has entered via water tables and spraying.
So I ratcheted up my vegetarianism by going meatless on Mondays. The Meatless Monday movement was launched in 2003 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to raise awareness of how meat consumption contributes to heart disease, obesity, and cancer, but the school soon linked the campaign with helping the environment.
A widely cited 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” found that food animals contribute 18 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide. Much of that value comes from rainforest deforestation, and most of the rest comes from the aforementioned liquefied-sewage problem.
In the U.S., the EPA estimates that six percent of our greenhouse gases come from agriculture, but we also have a disproportionate number of vehicles and smokestacks.
“What we eat in the U.S. has global impacts, whether or not we directly consume beef from Brazil,” says David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecology professor. “We use about half of our farmland to grow grains for animal feed. Were we to eat less meat or eat more environmentally efficient meat, we would export more grains, and this would decrease the demand for crops that are an underlying driver of tropical deforestation.”
Before long, my Meatless Mondays expanded into a broader commitment to sustainable eating. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s powerful Eating Animals, and felt profoundly ashamed. How could I rescue a turtle on the road or shun bunny-tested shampoo but not think twice about eating pork from an industry that keeps pigs in air so noxious, they die when the ventilators fail?
The U.S. Animal Welfare Act does not cover farm animals, and 30 state laws exempt anything defined as “industry standard.” Even if I didn’t care about the environment, the animal cruelty involved in chick grinding would’ve stirred me to change my lifestyle.
These days, my diet is nearly all vegetarian, all the time. The only meat I’ll eat is either wild game, or meat that doesn’t come from factory-farmed animals — and since sustainable, humanely raised and slaughtered meat is appropriately expensive, it doesn’t enter my house often.
While scientists and policymakers argue over the best solutions to ag-induced climate change, pollution, and animal-welfare issues, I opted for a simple but effective consumer choice. As Niman likes to say: eat less meat, eat better meat.
Houston-based freelance writer Wendee Holtcamp has a passion for food and sustainability. She has been writing since 1995 for magazines including Scientific American, Audubon, Miller-McCune, National Wildlife, and other magazines. A version of this article originally appeared in The Daily Climate.
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