Do you know where your food comes from? Students in SUA’s AP Environmental Science do.
Chances are, if you eat non-organic meat, it comes from a CAFO. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) produce 78% of the US’s beef, 95% of pork, 97% of eggs, 99% of turkey, and 99.9% of chicken, in addition to over 500 million tons of waste annually.
What is a CAFO?
There are around 450,000 CAFOs in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and they classify animal operations as CAFOs if they “keep animals confined for at least 45 days in a 12 month period and there is no grass or other vegetation in the area during the normal [animal] growing period.” These operations are considered efficient by supporters, but critics say that CAFOs are an environmental crisis.
Pros and Cons
One aspect of a factory farm that makes it a verified CAFO is if it produces a significant amount of pollution, and this varies directly with the way that the farms handle animal waste and manure. One of the many flaws of these “megafarms” is their carelessness with fertilization. Supporters of CAFOs make the argument that, since the farms use part of their waste as fertilizer, it cuts down on artificially made fertilizers. Farmers still, in fact, use the artificially made fertilizers and pesticides along with manure, and the combination of the two is equally, if not more harmful.
The hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals that are pumped into the animals in CAFOs end up in their excrement and subsequently run off into lakes and streams that contain the water we drink as well as the water that is used to irrigate the crops that both humans and animals eat. Once high levels of these substances reach bodies of water, they can kill wildlife as well as create algal blooms. Some algal blooms discolor water, emit odors, and change the taste of the water they inhabit, but other types can be toxic, like the recent Red Tide that left thousands of dead fish washed up on the shores of Florida.
Water purification centers have to put extra energy into ridding water of any of these algal blooms -- which are another indirect effect of climate change. Antibiotics are used at such high doses, since they have to be kept alive in filthy conditions, and this buildup creates the possibility for “superbugs” that can be passed on to humans when they eat the animals that are filled with them.
Organic and free range farms that don’t use antibiotics, growth hormones, or confinement are a healthier and safer option for people and for the environment - as is a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. SUA seniors Grace Coughlin and Maggie Mullaney have adopted these lifestyles, respectively. Both Coughlin and Mullaney stopped eating meat after they learned about the environmental impacts it had. Coughlin says she went vegetarian because of the “ungodly amounts of water pollution and eutrophication” CAFOs produce, “even if they are supposedly ‘contained’”.
Mullaney attributes her passion for veganism to Mr. Simcoe, the SUA AP Environmental Science teacher: “I went vegan after learning about the environmental impacts of the animal industry and the kind of horrific animal treatments that are supported through the purchasing of animal products. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Kara Scullin ‘19 is also vegetarian, “because of the inhumane and disturbing ways that animals are raised and treated in the meat industry in America.” Scullin does not have anything against eating animals but cites that “the way the industry is run today should disturb more people than it does.”
Mr. Simcoe himself chronicles why he became vegan. “It didn’t happen overnight. I was a vegetarian [...] for a few days here and there, then a few weeks here and there, and one time I did it for a whole Lent. Veganism kind of just seemed like the next step. After I learned about how much of an impact meat production has on the climate, on water, on habitat loss, on all these environmental issues that I was becoming more and more aware of, to me it almost seemed hypocritical for me to continue to do something that was so destructive while at the same time knowing how destructive it was – it’s one thing to do something bad but not know any better, but the fact that I know how big of a negative impact the meat industry has on the environment, to not change my lifestyle based on that knowledge would be very hypocritical.”
One notoriously inhumane CAFO is Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. The benefits that Smithfield Foods and other CAFOs gain from simply being a CAFO include drastically cheaper production costs, and more efficient meat production methods. Due to tightly packed stalls, CAFO owners don’t have to pay for large, open fields. For example, cattle are brought corn, instead of being allowed to graze in a grass field. Since the animals at CAFOs are bred for meat, rather than their intrinsic value, little money has to be put into the comfort of these animals. This is theoretically a plus for the people buying meat, since it will be cheaper than meat that is organic, grass fed, etc.
However these unnatural, inhumane conditions have repercussions, especially on the animals themselves. Smithfield Foods forces their pigs into gestation crates barely big enough to stand in. Throughout their entire lives, the pigs in these crates are able to move just a few inches. Combined with confinement periods that last at least 45 days, where there are no signs of anything natural, these pigs are treated as though they are not living animals. Disease and death are overwhelming in this environment. Graphic photos and videos from an undercover visitor to the Smithfield CAFO show open wounds, infections, and bleeding jaws from attempting to escape the bars by which they are enclosed. The visitor deduced that their conditions “cause them to quite literally go insane.” See the undercover video here: (WARNING: It contains graphic depiction of the harm to pigs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_vqIGTKuQE)
Mr. Simcoe adds that most animals in CAFOs are “notoriously surrounded by their own waste.” The Smithfield operation has faced several legal charges, including some as plain as nuisance: the odors, pests, and surface runoff can reach miles away from the actual establishment, causing distant neighbors to complain. Grace Coughlin adds that, since CAFOs produce such stenches, “they are often put in secluded areas – which is where they won’t be policed as strictly either.” Other well known CAFO-based companies include Tyson, Cargill, Monsanto, and McDonald’s.
Veggie Libel Laws
Some states have laws against any kind of news on CAFOs, hence the undercover visitor to Smithfield Foods. Veggie Libel Laws attempt to prohibit criticism of corporations like Smithfield, because according to Mr. Simcoe, “bad press equals a drop in people actually buying meat [...] and that would hurt the economies of places that depend on the meat industry.”
Veggie Libel Laws are just one reason people aren’t learning about CAFOs. Mr. Simcoe continues: “Most people don’t even know what a CAFO is – until you take AP Environmental Science or a class like that, you’ve never even heard of CAFOs. Or a lot of people have this idea that their meat comes from a farm that’s very idyllic, and very pastoral looking, whereas in fact it usually... doesn’t.” I ask how bad CAFOs are for human health: “Not great for human health, not great for the environment, not great for the animals -- and all three of those things are really intertwined,” says Mr. Simcoe.
His advice for those that want to adopt a more sustainable diet begins with simply paying more attention. He doesn’t look at cutting meat out of his diet as a sacrifice. In fact, Mr. Simcoe says that he ends up eating “way more fruits and vegetables, [...] simply because [he has] to pay a little bit more attention” to what he is eating. “There are very few things in life that are as intimate to us as eating – it’s something we do every day, and it’s something we internalize. You’re literally taking other life forms and they become part of you.”
Consuming CAFO-raised meat, dairy, and eggs has been connected to an increased risk of cancer, heart problems, and other degenerative diseases, according to Huffington Post. Since around 95% of all meat comes from these “animal factories,” one action step toward a more sustainable diet is to check the labels on your food the next time you eat meat. In the words of Paul McCartney, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”