A few weeks ago, I promised to begin telling the story that led to this blog, and started off with the true confessions of a PETA convert in this post. As I mention there, while the decision for me to become a vegetarian was one meant to protest the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, many other reasons piled up in the years I spent as a vegetarian.
Today, I’ll tackle the condensed version of one segment of those reasons: environmental degradation. As you might imagine, when a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO for those unfamiliar with the acronym) packs thousands of bodies into a small space, a whole slew of problems arise that lead to some serious pollution.
The first problem, to put it bluntly, is poop.
I learned the detailed facts of this particular problem from an outstanding piece of investigative journalism, the article “Boss Hog” by Jeff Tietz, originally published in Rolling Stone. It’s no longer available in full-text online, but I’ve got a document version of it for the curious here. Warning: Do not read while anywhere near food.
Let me provide the summarized version of the poop problem. A lot of animals means a lot of animal waste, which is not being naturally absorbed into the earth to fertilize soil, because these animals don’t live anywhere near soil. CAFOs then, are usually accompanied by giant manure lagoons—manmade ponds into which all this excrement is pumped.
Manure lagoon overflow, courtesy of factoryfarm.org
Now, this is gross, and toxic fumes from manure lagoons have been known to actually poison people living nearby. But the dangers go even further, as Tietz writes, when you take into consideration what might happen if some of that manure were to escape. Whether because of hurricanes or flooding, sometimes the manure lagoon ends up partially underwater. Suddenly, all that waste is a part of the local water system, seeping into the groundwater, or running downstream into larger waterways, poisoning fish along the way. Unfortunately, that kind of manure contamination doesn’t only happen when a natural disaster occurs. These manure lagoons frequently leak accidentally—Cargill, Smithfield and Tyson have all been fined, on various occasions, millions of dollars for felony violations of the Clean Water Act for knowingly polluting local watersheds with waste from manure lagoons.
Manure lagoons are, unfortunately, just one on a list of serious environmental consequences of this kind of concentrated farming. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (more than the percentage caused by global transportation) is a result of industrial livestock operations.
But here is where the journey begins—just barely—to swing back in the other direction. Because when I moved to Iowa a few years ago, I got a peek at the root cause of a significant chunk of the meat industry’s environmental offenses. This is one of those secrets out in the open, a secret that’s only kept through a combination of our unwillingness to face the real environmental costs of our eating habits and our country’s general ignorance about the Middle.
The man behind the curtain of industrial meat, is, it turns out, corn.
Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch
Many of you may know this—Michael Pollan did a pretty good job explaining it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and if you want the whole sordid affair you should read that book. But if researching the food industry for the last few years has taught me anything, it’s to not assume people know what I’m talking about.
Industrially-produced meat animals in this country eat almost entirely one thing: corn. Well, corn and antibiotics (because living on top of a manure lagoon isn’t too good on the immune system). The vast majority of the corn grown in this country goes, not into high fructose corn syrup, but into animals. Cattle, chicken, hogs, you name it. (Bonus points if you can identify the one of those three animals whose digestive system is actually designed to process corn.)
As America’s appetite for meat has increased, we needed to find a way to grow animals fatter, faster. In steps corn. Anyone who’s ever visited the Midwest can testify to what that appetite has done to the landscape of this, our country’s most fertile soil. Well more than half of Iowa is covered in corn.
With all that corn comes a new slew of environmental problems. Chemical fertilizers (which are required to allow farmers to keep their fields in constant production, rather than incorporating fallow years to allow the soil to fix its own nutrients) and pesticides are sprayed over most of this corn, and then allowed to seep into the soil and watershed of the Midwest, right here on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.
Which is why new evidence suggests that the dead zone growing in the Gulf of Mexico, already the size of New Jersey, will soon become the largest ever recorded. This means the complete destruction of marine life—and with it, the food and livelihoods downstream that depend on that marine life.
Gulf of Mexico algae bloom, courtesy of Treehugger.com
This system of intense, industrial corn production is also causing problems right here in the Midwest, the region that depends on this system for much of its livelihood. New research from my very own Iowa State University tracks the dramatic erosion of soil, exacerbated by intense tilling methods, indicating that more than six million of Iowa’s plantable acres are losing soil at double the “sustainable” rate. Such erosion also multiplies the damage done by chemical runoff—the more soil is lost into the waterway, the more fertilizer and pesticide goes with it.
Factory farming significantly degrades the environment, and has become such a massive operation, on a planet struggling to feed more than six billion people, that industrial agriculture is now a serious force in the destruction of the planet. Air and waterway pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion—all a direct result of the way we produce meat now.
But it’s more complex than that—because the corn/soy growing rotation has such a large impact on this environmental degradation, it’s difficult to argue that a vegetarian eating soy-based meat substitutes (or processed foods containing any corn or soy byproducts) isn’t also contributing to these problems. I’m certainly not suggesting that the demand for tofu is what fueled this system, but any conventional food, even if meat-free, is being produced by the same industrial system.
This is how the boomerang began to move back around for me. This was just the first in a series of realizations that showed me just how large and destructive the food industry was, and that showed me the myriad ways in which I, even as a vegetarian, might still be buying into that industry. To be continued…
Have you ever stopped eating meat—or considered it? What were your reasons? Tree hugger or meat-lover, leave a comment and share your thoughts on the environmental impacts or any other ethical implications!