Rarely do we as Americans reflect on the fact that 10 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for our food system or that over 90 percent are raised in CAFOs, better known as factory farms. Since profit is the driving force, living, breathing creatures are treated as a commodity with the goal to produce the highest volume of meat and dairy on the smallest amount of feed, taking up the least amount of square footage. These animals are crowded in cages or pens with no vegetation, restricted fresh air and movement, and are fed a disease-inducing diet that betrays what each species has evolved to eat over thousands of years. For example, as we know, cows are herbivores and they're designed to thrive on fresh grass. In the common industrialized system though, they're forced to eat GMO corn, plastic pellets (to compensate for a lack of fiber), and pulverized animal parts, which creates acidification and inflammation in their bodies. Crammed in feedlots, often standing in thick, muddy fecal matter or breathing in "fecal dust" they're subjected to high stress from birth to slaughter. It's no wonder then that the need for antibiotics has increased!
Of course, nature never intended for any species to rely on antibiotics for general health. Contrary to that basic wisdom though, 80 percent of the antibiotics in the U.S. are pushed on to animals that are headed for your plate. They're used to keep animals alive in deplorable conditions and to promote growth. As a result, factory farms have become the breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant "superbugs." What this means for our health is that some drugs are becoming obsolete while the likelihood of a pandemic outbreak is an increasing threat.
Even for people who don't take issue with animals being force-fed pharmaceuticals there's still the disturbing fact that their fecal matter is often ending up in our food. Living conditions and kill lines aimed at ever-increasing speeds make it hard to avoid their waste. Processing methods and lax laws make it nearly impossible. For instance, the USDA allows tainted meat to pass inspection as long as the feces are not visible to the naked eye. When slaughterhouses have doubled and quadrupled the rate at which animals are killed and processed, imagine how many questionable cuts are ignored or slip by. Unfortunately, since the vast majority of meat and dairy eaten by the public is owned and controlled by a relatively small group of companies, it's that much easier for cross-contamination to occur and low standards to remain unchallenged. Case in point, when someone eats a typical hamburger, they're eating pieces of meat from multiple dead cows that have been mixed together. The question is then raised does anyone really want to pay to eat fecal matter? And is it worth the risk when some strains of bacteria passed from livestock to humans, such as E. Coli, not only make people sick, but can actually kill them or their family members? Of course even without pathogens, regularly eating significant amounts of meat and dairy is linked to obesity and cancer.
It's not just the risk of consuming animal products that's alarming. Every year, American CAFOs produce trillions of tons of waste containing bacterial and chemical toxins. Drive within a few miles of one of these operations and you'll experience the absolute stench. Not only is the smell caustic though, kids raised near factory farms are twice as likely to have asthma. Unbelievably, there are still no U.S. federal guidelines that regulate how the concentrated livestock feces are stored, treated, or disposed of. That means that despite the enormous sanitary need, the excrement and urine isn't processed through waste-treatment systems. Instead it's pumped into lagoons that regularly seep or spill into local water sources and it's deliberately sprayed into the air. By relying on the wind for "smoke and mirrors" damage control the filth is carried away from the operation into countless communities and ecosystems.
Factory farms that raise hogs (for bacon and a myriad of other pork products) are the most notorious for creating immense health, economic, and environmental issues. Deadly lagoons filled with pig excrement and poisonous gases can sprawl out over 120,000 square feet and run five times deeper than a swimming pool while property values in the surrounding areas plummet. On top of that, nearby families have been known to suffer with depression, excessive diarrhea, nosebleeds, and other painful symptoms.
The U.N. has made it clear that animal agriculture, and the greenhouse gases that come with it, are also a major contributor to climate change. In fact, they've urged us to adopt a vegan diet for years. With increasing droughts taking their toll the clock is ticking with how long we can avoid the staggering truth that producing one pound of meat requires about 2,400 gallons of water while a pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons. Given the big picture, it's easy to see why the American Public Health Association has urged an all-out moratorium on new factory farms. Of course, with ugly politics and intense greed blocking the way, it's up to us to turn things around and vote with our forks to better protect our own health, each other, and the planet we (as well as countless species) call home.